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Stakes high in school testing debate

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Stakes high in school testing debate

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By Debbie Bruell

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Sopris Sun Correspondent

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At the same time that discontent with U.S. educational policy is mounting, our local school district is preparing for a visioning process for the community to explore and define what we want locally for the education of our children. The Sopris Sun is running a series of articles that addresses some of the key concepts at the center of national and local discussions about educational reform. This article is the second in that series.

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The first article addressed the concepts of educational standards and assessments – two basic elements of education that have come to be defined very narrowly in recent education policy and dominate the government’s approach to school reform. This article looks more closely at how No Child Left Behind has made state-mandated standards and standardized testing the focus of U.S. education policy and some problems with this “test-and-punish” approach.

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No Child

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), signed into law in 2002, required every state to create a set of standards — the basic level of knowledge and skills that every single child should be able to achieve at each grade level — and select a standardized test that would measure each child’s proficiency level on these standards. States were required to test every child, every year, from third through eighth grade (with increasing testing requirements in subsequent years).

States were given until the year 2014 to get every child proficient on all math and English standards. For every year that a school or a district did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) toward this goal of 100 percent proficiency, they would face a series of increasingly severe punishments — from being publicly scorned to having the school shut down. 

Some common criticisms of NCLB’s narrow focus on high stakes standardized testing include the following:

1. The standardized tests begin to drive the instruction, rather than focusing on what’s best for kids.

Skills that cannot be tested by standardized test (such teamwork or oral communication skills) as well as subjects that are not included on the tests (such as history, science or the arts) tend to become less valued as part of the learning experience simply because they are not on the test. Getting good test scores often becomes the primary goal rather than focusing on engaging students or “sparking” their curiosity.

2. NCLB focuses on the basic, necessary level of achievement, rather than higher-level thinking skills.

While making sure that every child learns the basics of reading, writing and math is certainly an important goal, many critics have noted that children need much more than a minimum level of reading, writing and math, especially to succeed in the 21st century.

3. In many states, teachers have been held accountable for teaching such a huge number of standards that it is overwhelming and stifling.

Teachers are generally told, “The standards define what you have to teach, not how you teach it.” However, if a teacher has more than 100 standards to teach in one subject area, and is required to report on each standard for each child, teachers have little time to do anything besides plow through the standards as quickly as possible. Creative and hands-on learning experiences, as well as delving deeply into long-term projects, have become less common simply because they are considered more time-consuming.

A few years ago, a fourth-grade teacher in Re-1 was required to teach and report on over 100 “Essential Learner Objectives” just for reading and writing. (As will be discussed later, this number has been greatly reduced.)

4. Many critics see the labeling of schools as “failures” and shutting schools down as a way to let private corporations step in to get public funds to run schools as charters and voucher schools.

It is largely inner-city schools in low-income communities of color that are getting shut down. Rather than being provided with the resources they need to succeed, they are being replaced with privately run schools receiving public funds. In some cases these privately run schools are getting lower test scores than the schools they replaced. (The charter schools in our community, Carbondale Community School and Ross Montessori School, are not run by private corporations.)

5. Huge expenditures of resources — public funds as well as teacher time — are being spent on testing.

According to a study by the Piton Foundation, in the year 2005 alone, nearly $25 million was spent on implementing Colorado’s standardized test — the CSAP (Colorado State Assessment Program). Many critics point out that re-directing those resources to publicly-funded pre-school, all-day kindergarten and/or teacher training programs would have a much greater impact on improving the education of our children.

Eliminate testing?

Given the above criticism of high stakes standardized testing, does that mean we should completely eliminate standardized testing? While both Superintendent Diana Sirko and Assistant Superintendent Rob Stein have concerns about how standardized testing has been used through NCLB, they also see some value in high-quality standardized tests.

Stein told The Sun in an interview earlier this year that some form of standardized testing is important so that truly ineffective schools can be “red flagged.” He gives the example of a Boston school he worked with years ago that was “frightening: kids weren’t learning, teachers weren’t teaching, it was an oppressive, racist environment.” 

Aside from such extreme cases, Stein also notes that high quality standardized tests can be useful for all districts in terms of helping them identify specific areas in which students are not performing as well as they could be. Stein noted that standardized tests have helped our district identify college-readiness as an area in need of improvement.

According to Sirko, another useful role for good standardized tests is to enable parents to compare their children’s progress to children across the state or the nation so that parents can be assured that their children are gaining the essentials they need to be successful beyond their individual school district.

Even some of the sharpest critics of U.S. public education speak about the important role that good standardized tests can play as part of an educational system. For example, Sir Ken Robinson, a leading speaker on the power of imagination and creativity, who gave the most-watched Internet TEDtalk on how “schools kill creativity,” states in a recent TEDtalk: “Testing is important. Standardized tests have a place. … They should be diagnostic.” 

Robinson also clarifies that standardized testing “should not be the dominant culture of education … It should support learning, it shouldn’t obstruct it, which of course it often does.” 

Other education experts note that the key benefits of standardized tests could be gained by simply testing a sample of students each year and/or testing just two to three times before high school graduation, rather than testing every student every year. Many countries which rank high on international assessments use this sampling approach. 

In spite of the challenges associated with high stakes standardized testing, there are examples of innovative, inspiring and high-achieving public schools across the country. Future articles will explore some of the alternatives being proposed nationally to address the shortfalls of NCLB and whether it is possible to follow state mandates regarding high stakes testing without letting them dominate the shape of our schools.

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