Now that spring is finally here, kids cooped up during this particularly brutal winter might be looking forward to enjoying some sunshine. Many will have to control the wiggles a little longer, though. It’s standardized testing season, which means silent hallways, desks arranged in rows, and for many kids, a lot of anxiety until it’s over.
Now that the tests in many states are getting harder in order to align with the new Common Core standards and being used to grade teachers, not just students, they’re also producing a lot of anxiety among parents and teachers, too. In response to the added pressure this year, a movement against standardized testing is gathering steam as some parents decide to let their children opt out of the tests.
Their movement may not stop the use of the tests. But it does raise the question of whether the resisters have a point.
The Hechinger Report asked parents who are pulling their kids out of the tests to explain the reasons they did so. And then we asked Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which supports the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers, to make an argument for why kids shouldn’t opt out of tests.
Here’s what parents in favor of opting out said:
1) The tests don’t actually measure the skills we want students to learn, such as critical thinking, creativity and complex problem solving. Latoshia Wheeler, a work-at-home mom of three, has led an opt-out movement at her third grader’s school, the Riverdale Avenue Community School in Brownsville, a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn. Ninety percent of the students receive free lunch, a measure of poverty, and 94 percent are black or Hispanic. Wheeler estimates only two or three students will take the tests this year in the third grade. The rest have opted out.
Instead of multiple-choice exams, Wheeler says she wishes the state tests could be modeled on the portfolios of class work and projects her high school-age daughter turns in twice a year. “That teaches them how to express themselves. They can see where they grew,” she said. “That’s more on the lines of critical thinking. That makes you want to do better, and I just feel like kids learn more from experience.”
2) The tests aren’t reliable measures of how much students know and how well teachers can teach. Liz Rosenberg is the parent of a fourth grader at the Brooklyn New School, a school with a sizeable middle and upper middle class population. A group of New School parents announced on Tuesday that 80 percent of students in testing grades were opting out of the tests this year. “There’s very little reason to have faith in the tests,” Rosenberg, who works as a teacher trainer, said.
“All you get is one little score. You actually get no information about your child,” she added. “You get no information about what it is they do well. What it is they need to work on.”
3) Schools spend too much time prepping for mediocre, unreliable exams, especially at struggling schools where students could benefit from more enrichment. Wheeler says her son’s school does not offer art or music to students, and that they rarely go on field trips. She says the focus on the math and English tests also takes away time from the other core subjects of science and of social studies.
“All they do is teach them to take a test. You should teach a child to learn,” she said. “There’s so much that’s missing.”
Although many educators and officials admit the tests aren’t perfect, in New York, state and city education officials have urged families like the Rosenbergs and the Wheelers not to opt out. We asked Jacobs why students should stick with the exams.
1) The tests are about to get better, now that Common Core aligned tests are rolling out next year in many states. The new tests will have problems that ask students to do more than pick an answer from a list of four choices. For instance, the English tests developed by two testing consortia include questions that may ask students to pick more than one answer or ask them to highlight important points in a text. They also include short essay questions. The new math tests in some cases allow students to write out formulas or manipulate shapes on a computer screen.
But Jacobs said one reason many parents are frustrated is that the tests haven’t caught up with the new standards being taught in schools yet. “There’s a very valid concern that they’re not well aligned with the standards that are in place,” she said. “That should change in the very near future. I think that frustration is real, at the same time, it’s part of the process.”
2) The tests may not reveal everything about how much a student has learned, but they’re an important element of a more holistic picture of student performance. Proponents of the tests, and of the teacher evaluations now attached to them, usually argue that the tests should be one piece of an evaluation of student performance that includes formative tests, too, and that teachers should also be graded on classroom observations and lesson planning.
“The idea that assessment isn’t an important part of teaching and learning, I’m not sure how the conversation got to this point where we seemed to lost sight that anything a teacher knows about her students is because she measured it some way,” Jacobs said.
3) The tests show how unequal the school system is, and identify which schools need more help and resources because their students are falling behind. Standardized tests have been the main way educators, experts and policymakers have measured the achievement gap between low-income and minority children and their wealthier, white peers. And knowing how big the gap is has prompted more urgency in the effort to close it.
“I haven’t seen anything that suggests that we’re at a point in the opt out movement where we’re skewing the data. If it was to get real legs and we saw big groups of kids not taking the test, then I think we do have an equity issue,” Jacobs said. “The results of the tests are some of the best markers we have to help identify those equity issues.”
Which argument is more convincing? Latoshia Wheeler, for her part, was still adamant there is a better way than standardized exams.
“I don’t want to put my son through any of that to show that we need resources. You could live a day in the life of a Brownsville student and find out we need resources,” she said. “The test shows inequity in education. I agree with that. But that’s not a reason to do it.”
Standardized tests are a common and popular way to evaluate the academic achievements of students, teachers, and school districts. They are used in many areas, such as in the army, civil service, medicine, and so on, but primarily standardized tests are associated with academic performance. Many arguments in favor of the usage of these tests have been put forward, as well as a number against, since this method of monitoring and evaluating academic success has both benefits and drawbacks.
Standardized tests are most widely used in the field of education to assess the academic performance of students. Two commonly known types of standardized tests in the USA are the SAT and the ACT. The SAT evaluates skills in vocabulary and mathematics, while the ACT has more to do with a broader range of knowledge and includes additional subjects, such as science. Among the other most-known tests are the PSAT, National Achievement Tests, and SAT II examinations.
One of the main purposes of testing is to set a standard: a performance baseline of progress for all parties involved in the educational process—students, teachers, and school districts, and to hold them accountable for achieving it. The idea is to detect areas where students usually fail, or fall behind and promote improvement, not punish them (Strong 24). Besides, tests help remove bias some teachers may exhibit towards students and make the evaluation process more objective. This is usually achieved by using special automatic machines that score exams. Also, due to the usage of these methods, the potential of human error is decreased, or even eliminated.
On the other hand, the exploitation of the system of standardized testing is linked to a number of issues. Thus, many feel that tests do not provide accurate evaluations of a student’s knowledge and learning capabilities, particularly due to the fact that in order to pass a test, rote memorization is preferred to critical thinking and higher learning (Strong 254). Critics of standardized testing often claim it contributes to the rise of academic dishonesty, as the pursuit of knowledge becomes a pursuit of higher test scores. Besides, the emotional state of students may be destabilized due to test-taking. The environment, fostering constant competition and even rivalry may create excessive stress and test-anxiety. A person who gets a low test score may become discouraged from pursuing further academic success. Perhaps one of the most serious drawbacks of using standardized testing is connected to discrimination. Holding all schools and students to the same national standards may infringe on the rights of students with disabilities, lower socio-economic statuses, those who learn English as a second language, students of different nationalities, and so on.
One can see that standardized testing is a universal method of evaluating those skills to which tests are targeted, which aim to reduce or even excludes bias, partiality, or the potential of human error. Standardized tests are meant to set a high standard and promote objectivity. However, this method is not perfect and involves a number of issues. The most critical among them are the preference accorded to memorization over critical and analytic thinking; the encouragement of academic dishonesty; infringing on students’ emotional state, and even some elements of discrimination. Evaluating both sides of the argument allows for improvements to be made, while still encouraging students to strive for the highest academic achievement.
Strong, Malena. The Truth about Standardized Tests. New York: Big Tree Publishers, 2004. Print.
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