High Stakes Testing
by Grace Vyduna-Haskins
Recently I attended a session on assessment at the International Reading Association convention in New Orleans. Educators everywhere are concerned with the high stakes testing that is now seemingly entrenched in our school systems. The ideas that follow are a combination of what I heard at the convention, sites I've found on the internet, and some thoughts of my own.
Where We Are
In the early 1980's educators began to complain that the traditional standardized tests of the time were unfair, that they didn't measure what was being taught in schools or that they didn't reflect the language and learning of minority groups. This led to individual school districts developing their own criterion reference tests and to state boards of education developing standard assessments for each state. As one who was deeply involved in the creation of criterion reference tests for the first grade level in our district, I am acutely aware of the criteria we set and of the differences between what we asked for and the questions created for us by the professional testing company hired to refine the tests. Many times the questions seemed to have been plucked out of a standard list and had nothing to do with what we had asked to be measured. Weeks ticked by as we negotiated for better test questions. The morass seemed to become even muddier than what we were leaving behind.
At the same time, individual states began developing goals and assessment tools which, they hoped, would improve education in all schools. This may not have been a bad idea had the politicians not gotten into the fray to publish, at least here in Illinois, school report cards which informed the public of every school that exceeded, met, or fell short of the state norms. This rating of schools, on the basis of the results of one particular on one particular day, seems to have created problems worse than the ones that originally existed. We cannot lay the blame on a particular political party, president, or governor. The process has been in the making for a number of years and may become a lot worse before it gets better unless we become activists on behalf of our students and ourselves.
The concerns of the educational community are multiple. Teaching to the test has resulted in curriculum displacement. Teachers no longer feel free to teach what they feel is important. There is evidence of cheating by students and by teachers who give out answers so that their students will rate higher. The term triage was used to describe activities in which children receive extra instruction in filling in bubbles. It is felt that the dropout rate, both physical and psychological, in our schools will escalate as students either fail or become frustrated with the tests. Of course, if low students drop out, test scores may rise but this runs contradictory to our concept of educating ALL children. The whole culture of teaching will change as these mandates continue.
One of the worst case scenarios was pointed out by Marva/TX as she called our attention to the Minnesota testing fiasco as reported by the New York Times. Schools refused to graduate high school seniors on the basis of their test scores, only to find that the tests had been scored incorrectly. The pressure to develop tests is creating havoc as testing corporations grind out assessments without proper attention to details. Students are failing because the tests are in error!
It's difficult to say that we must do this or we must do that in order to succeed as teachers. My concern has been with laying a solid foundation at the primary level. Whether we like it or not, standards are being set. We need to take a look at some of these standards and ask ourselves whether or not our curriculum will help us achieve those standards. They're a bit expensive but the National Center on Education and the Economy, http://www.ncee.org, offers standards for reading and writing and for speaking and listening. Many of these standards are much higher than what most of us previously thought appropriate for primary grade levels. If we set our personal goals to move our students toward meeting these, I believe our teaching will change and test results will improve.
In order to accomplish this, we need to decide what we want to accomplish by year's end, set specific classroom goals, and structure our teaching to meet them. We will need to question every activity we plan for children, eliminate every activity that is unrelated to what we want to accomplish, and rearrange some of them to better lead us toward the desired results. In addition, we need to stress reading and writing in every area of the curriculum. In spite of what some theorists would have us believe, schools are not continuous playgrounds. Their purpose should be to educate children.
Much help for primary reading teachers is available on the internet through CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement: http://www.ciera.org/. There one can find research reports done by educators who are interested in what really works instead of researching and promoting a particular theory or method. For a fairly complete course on teaching reading comprehension, I like the Muskingum College website at http://muskingum.edu/~cal/database/reading.html. This site offers multiple good strategies to use in helping students understand what they read.
We also need to hold ourselves responsible through ongoing assessments. We need to use a series of alternative testing procedures that fit what we teach. The speakers at IRA recommend looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress model. NAEP reading comprehension questions are developed to engage the different approaches that readers take in the process of trying to understand what is being read. This sight is invaluable to content area teachers as they seek to improve reading instruction.
What Can We Do
There is a little hope. As with all bandwagons, time will show that high stakes testing is not achieving the desired results. Parents are beginning to speak out against high stakes testing and we're beginning to see activism on the part of professional organizations such as the IRA. There WILL be shifting political views and we need to hasten that process.
We need to research and document the adverse effects of high stakes testing. We need to use multiple measures for critical decisions. We need to write well thought out letters to the editors of our local newspapers, alerting them to the problems. As parents, we ne must insist that we be allowed to see the tests our children take. As teachers, we need to convince our schools to invite parents to take the tests along with their children. We need to contact our legislators, particularly at the state level, and invite them to visit our schools during test taking days. We need to write to the instructors in teachers' colleges, calling them to give us solid grounding in proven successful instructional practices instead of promoting their favorite theories.
There is also power in numbers and in organization. An internet site called FairTest, http://www.fairtest.org, has been developed so that educators and parents can work together to heal the madness of high stakes testing.
There is hope. However, while we continue to hope, we still need to hold ourselves accountable for student improvement, to show that we can more fairly assess student progress, and become activists in the political process.