Skepticism spike surrounding standardized tests

As parents wait—and wait and wait—to find out how their sons and daughters did last year on exams tied to the Common Core, the gauges in the brains of ordinary Americans that track skepticism for the validity and even relevance of those tests in measuring student, teacher, or school performance are pegged off-scale high.

And the longer states take to get those results back to schools and parents, the more difficult it will become to get those skepticism gauges back to levels within normal limits. School officials in Connecticut have even warned districts that sending out data before it’s OK to do so could jeopardize their own schools’ access to pre-release data—about their own students—in the future. Can you imagine keeping data about the schools from the schools?

In Maryland, schools haven’t even received their students’ scores yet, preliminary or otherwise, so it’s not a question of telling people about the data before the state allows it; it’s a simple matter of the state not telling them what the data reflect.

The data overall are going to be bad, though. The tests aligned to the Common Core are expected to show a much higher failure rate than any previous state tests ever did.

Maryland and Connecticut aren’t the only states with problems, of course. In Montana, where the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium provides the tests, officials are withholding payment of more $100,000 because, while results were due to the state on July 15, they won’t be ready until November. During testing, computer glitches on the part of Measured Progress, a testing company, prevented thousands of students from completing the tests.

Testing was also botched, badly, in Nevada, where a $1.3 million settlement has just been reached over the testing program, the Review-Journal reports. “Nevada’s testing experience in 2015 was completely unsatisfactory,” the paper quoted former state Superintendent Dale Erquiaga as saying, noting that Measured Progress was committed to doing the “right thing” going forward by reaching the settlement and providing additional products and services to the state valued at about half a million dollars.

Back east, educators in Florida continue to wait for results from the state’s tests, known as the Florida Standards Assessments, due in part to a cyberattack on the testing system six months ago. “We will have lost months of opportunity to make changes in what we’re teaching or how we’re teaching it, if we need to, in order to assure our students can show their successful learning on that test,” Bay-9 News quoted a local teachers’ union president as saying.

All of this secrecy, threatening warnings from state school officials, the withholding of payments, the lawsuits and settlements—the volume from this activity has grown so loud as to be inescapable.

Skepticism about high-stakes testing has reached a tipping point, argues David Safier in the Tucson Weekly. Referring to the PDK poll Voxitatis reported on yesterday, the teacher writes, “So far as I could tell, the analysis doesn’t indicate whether the public’s attitude toward high-stakes testing has changed from previous years, but I’m reasonably certain it’s gone down. We may be reaching a tipping point, where enough people think we’re overemphasizing the tests that their use and importance may begin to lessen.”

He also expressed concern that the opt-out movement didn’t have a strong foothold in Arizona, but it certainly has left an indelible mark on US and state education policy. The district in Oneida County, N.Y., for example, saw 77 percent of students opt out of the state’s Common Core math test and 74 percent opt out of the English test.

“We are a small community and we talk to each other,” the Syracuse Post-Standard quoted Kate Despins, a parent in the district, as saying. “If someone sneezes [here], we all know it. We see the same people at sporting events, at the grocery store, and everywhere else, and we talk. We stick together, and we inform each other. We fought for our school, our kids, our teachers. We will continue to do so. We stand up against what is wrong and fight for change.”

Because of parental opt-out, the state of Oregon barely met the federal requirement that at least 95 percent of the students in the state be tested, Oregon Live reported. Not all districts within the state met the target, though.

Lawmakers in South Carolina are considering legislation that will allow parents to opt their children out of tests. “We need to protect parents’ rights,” the Independent Mail quoted state Rep Jonathon Hill as saying about a bill he introduced that would prevent parents, schools, or students from being penalized if students don’t take state-mandated standardized tests, like the ACT Aspire, when their parents opt them out of those tests.

But if you think parents are the only ones upset about testing and skeptical beyond measure of the use of the data that they don’t even have yet, think again.

While I acknowledge the big toll testing takes on kids, it takes a huge toll on teachers and on schools as well. Bruce Peterson, a local school board member in Pennsylvania, told the board about the toll standardized tests have begun to take, acccording to what he has seen and heard.

“I want to tell you, people are angry in the state of Pennsylvania—administrators, teachers, everybody,” the Titusville Herald quoted him as saying. He went on to show how teachers are not only giving up most of the school year to prepare students for tests in only a few subjects, but they’re also forced to give up other parts of the curriculum.

As a result, he said, school officials from across the state have gone so far as to accuse the Pennsylvania Department of Education of “sucking the motivation out of our schools.”

“We used to pull that a couple weeks before, you were getting ready for the test, but now it’s all year, so you are giving up a lot of the curriculum,” the paper quoted Lynn Cressman, a school board member and retired Titusville teacher, as saying.

Indeed, as we increase the number of tests, we suck the motivation out of our schools, which sucks the creativity out of our students. Writes Stephen Power in a letter to the editors of the Telegram in Worcester, Mass.:

With more yes or no answers as a result of the [test to test the tests to test if tests are testing what they say they are testing, or TTTTTTT], we come closer to the additional ideal of having robots, instead of imperfect humans, teaching students. At last, society may rid itself of dangerous human concepts such as creativity, spontaneity, openness, and change. Shudder the thought that such revolutionary ideas would infect the minds of our students.

I confidently join Mr Power in his concern that the preparation for tests is crowding out other important areas of the curriculum. This has been happening for years, and the narrowing of the curriculum has been particularly noticeable in traditional neighborhood schools that serve predominantly low-income students of color.

Furthermore, other school subjects, listed in S.1177, the No Child Left Behind rewrite bill that passed the Senate but is now in a conference committee, like the arts, computer science, and physical education—subjects that aren’t tested but are just as important, parents say—need to be presented to students just as much as math and reading.

Testing “was the number one problem that principals gave,” the Washington Post quoted Brandon Busteed, executive director of the Education Workforce Development program at Gallup, as saying to describe the roadblocks parents say exist between students’ desire to study computer science and schools’ ability to teach it. Students “are overwhelmed by what they need to be tested on,” and teachers lack the resources to teach subjects outside of the core.

If S.1177 becomes law, however, computer science, music, physical education, and several other subjects will become part of “the core.” The reason I brought in Carl Sagan’s quote about skepticism and creativity was to emphasize the creativity. The skepticism is obvious; what we need are creative solutions to providing all students with a well-rounded education. The need is there to assess what they know, but bad tests just aren’t going to do it for them.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.