Dawn Neely-Randall has seen many things in her 24 years teaching in Ohio schools, but 2014 was different. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards in Ohio, students had to take a pilot version of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test on top of the standard Ohio Achievement Tests. This amounted to almost eight hours of testing in a single week for Neely-Randall’s fifth graders. One student couldn’t handle the stress of all of these tests and broke down in the middle of one. “She had a complete meltdown,” Neely-Randall told the HPR. “And I could do nothing to help her, I couldn’t help her with the test. I could just let her take a little break then, but then she was going to run out of time, and she was watching the clock, she knew.”
For Neely-Randall, this was a “turning point,” because she realized, “I can no longer be part of the problem in my students’ lives, and that’s when I started speaking out.” She wrote two essays for The Washington Post criticizing the number of tests her students have to take and spoke to local and state officials about the issue. But despite her protests and a growing test-resistance movement, the state still administers the PARCC assessments.
President George W. Bush’s signing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 ushered in the current era of high-stakes testing. The law required states to administer math and reading tests every year to students from third to eighth grade and imposed increasingly harsh punishments on schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” on these tests. By 2011, according to the Center on Education Policy, almost half of schools nationwide were labeled as “failing” because they could not make adequate yearly progress.
The law has come with a hefty price tag for taxpayers. A 2012 study by the Brookings Institution determined that states spend $1.7 billion per year on testing, an enormous increase over the $423 million states spent in 2001 before NCLB, according to the Pew Center on the States. All of this money has fueled a booming testing industry, with companies like Pearson racking up billions in sales. A POLITICO investigation published on February 10, 2015 revealed that Pearson receives tens of millions in taxpayer dollars even though there is “little proof its products and services are effective.”
Now, with politicians on the left and the right dismissing NCLB as a failure, Congress is set to rewrite the law, and there is a vigorous debate over whether to keep the annual testing mandate. From the conviction of 11 teachers in Atlanta on racketeering charges following a high-profile cheating scandal to the rapid growth of the opt-out movement, evidence is mounting that the accountability system is broken.
“Total Testing Insanity”
Because standardized tests determine which classes her students will get into in middle school, Neely-Randall realizes she has to put her objections to the side and prepare them as best she can. She tried to show them a practice PARCC exam, but when she asked her students to write down what they thought about the test, one student wrote, “I feel like we have to take all these tests and if I pass the tests I live and if I don’t, I die.” This was extremely alarming for Neely-Randall. “I was horrified. I mean, I really was horrified. Because they were just freaking out.”
The focus on test prep eats up time that could be spent doing hands-on projects and collaborative, interactive activities. Neely-Randall told the HPR, “In the beginning, we were doing all of these great projects and they were fluent readers and writers … and then all of a sudden, I had to stop everything to get them ready for a test.” In fact, according to a report published in 2013 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), students in heavily tested grades can spend over 110 hours per year doing test prep, and as many as 50 hours per year taking the tests themselves, a total of roughly 15 percent of their instructional time.
The schools that have been forced to devote the most time to test prep are those in the most disadvantaged communities, because they have to achieve the biggest increases in test scores under NCLB’s mandates. Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, explained in an interview with the HPR, “In those kinds of schools, the curriculum becomes test prep: doing worksheets and practice tests and getting ready for the big test.” A report from the Center for American Progress substantiates Schaeffer’s claim, demonstrating that urban high school students spend as much as 266 percent more time taking standardized tests than their suburban counterparts do.
This increased focus on test prep has had a profoundly negative impact on the quality of education many students receive. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in America, said in an interview with the HPR that the narrow focus on tested subjects causes students to become disengaged at school. “Most kids I know are so anxious about the high-stakes consequences of these tests right now that they hate school, but yet they can be really engaged if we engage them through music or through art or through projects.”
Because only math and reading test scores count towards a school’s “adequate yearly progress” under NCLB, schools have deemphasized, and in some cases completely stopped, teaching things like “social studies, literature, art, music, physical education, and other important topics where test scores do not result in judgments of school quality,” writes Richard Rothstein in his 2004 book Class and Schools. A 2006 study by the Center on Education Policy supported this claim, finding that since NCLB was passed, 71 percent of school districts cut back on subjects like history and music so they could spend more time on the tested subjects.
Some experts, however, do not see this narrowing of the curriculum as a necessarily bad thing. In an interview with the HPR, Chester E. Finn, Jr., a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, explained, “Until you’ve got kids at least minimally proficient in reading and math, you’re really not going to have very much success teaching them anything else.” Grover Whitehurst, the former director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, echoed this sentiment in an interview with the HPR, saying that “kids are not well served by marching band if, in fact, they can’t read and do math.”
Yet even within the tested subjects of reading and math, an overemphasis on standardized testing hurts the quality of instruction students receive. The current system of accountability, which uses the same tests to measure trends in achievement and to evaluate teachers, necessarily promotes teaching to the test, according to Derek Neal, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. As he explained in an interview with the HPR, tracking progress “requires that these tests be designed in a way that they yield comparable scores across time. The demand for comparability … will inevitably lead to predictability, and once you have predictability, then the teachers are going to be tempted to coach, and not teach.”
Gaming the System: Testing as an Accountability Measure
In April, hundreds of thousands of public school students from grades three through eight in New York take high-stakes tests in English Language Arts and Mathematics. Jeanette Deutermann’s son is not one of them.
Deutermann, a Long Island parent and critic of New York’s test-based accountability system, told the HPR in an interview that she witnessed her school’s relentless focus on standardized testing transform her son, who is now in sixth grade, from someone who never complained about going to school to someone who intensely dreaded it. “He would be doing homework, and he would be sobbing, he’d be trying to wipe tears away while he’s trying to finish his homework so he could see the paper. He would constantly talk about how stupid he was, how ‘I can’t wait until I can drop out of school.’”
Deutermann knew her son was not the best test-taker, but she also knew that his teachers were excellent, and that their evaluations depended on his test scores. So, for the past two years, Deutermann has opted her son out of the state tests in ELA and math. She explained, “This was not in opposition to the school, but in support.” She created a Facebook group to provide information to Long Island parents about opting their children out of tests, which now has over 17,000 members. She also became part of the steering committee for the advocacy group New York State Allies for Public Education, which opposes excessive standardized testing.
This year, tens of thousands of parents across the country joined Deutermann in refusing to let their children take the tests, with over 200,000 in New York alone. The movement is gaining momentum in other states, too, with hundreds of students opting out of tests in New Mexico, 3,000 students in Florida, and over 40,000 in New Jersey. But the biased test outcomes resulting from high numbers of student opt-outs are just one way that standardized tests may provide an inaccurate measure for evaluating teachers, and they are by far the least insidious.
There are myriad ways that test scores can be manipulated to make a student or a school appear to be doing better than they actually are. For example, states have lowered the scores students need to pass, according to a 2009 report published in the International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership. Thus, while it is true that the number of students scoring “proficient” on state standardized tests has risen, real student achievement has not necessarily improved. Low-stakes, diagnostic tests, which are not subject to this type of manipulation because they are not attached to rewards or punishments for teachers or schools, confirm this finding. Math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have improved incrementally at best, and have actually declined on the Programme for International Student Assessment.
Schools and administrators have also pressured low-performing students to drop out or enter special education programs in order to raise overall test scores. According to a 2010 report from the civil rights organization Advancement Project, “the practice of pushing struggling students out of school to boost test scores has become quite common.” And a 2002 study from researchers at Arizona State University found a correlation between high-stakes testing and “higher numbers of low performing students being suspended before testing days, expelled from school before tests, or being reclassified as exempt from testing because they are determined to be either Special Education or Limited English Proficient (LEP).”
Yet many proponents of annual high-stakes standardized testing continue to argue in its favor by framing it as a civil rights issue. In a January 2015 Senate debate over the reauthorization of NCLB, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) argued, “We know that if we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold our states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities.” However, there are plenty of other non-annual, low-stakes tests not mandated by NCLB, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, that demonstrate this achievement gap without many of the harmful consequences associated with their high-stakes counterparts.
Furthermore, arguments like Murray’s assume that standardized tests are good proxies for student learning, which oftentimes is not the case. According to Stanford University professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond, “The tests we use, particularly the state standardized tests, are extremely narrow. Evidence shows that they measure almost exclusively low-level skills.” A 2012 study from the RAND Corporation backs this claim, finding that only three to 10 percent of elementary and middle school students in the United States were administered tests that assessed deeper learning skills. And even the low-level skills that the tests do measure can be impacted by how much sleep the student got the night before the test and whether the room where the student took the test was too hot or cold.
One thing it seems standardized tests are exceptionally good at measuring is socioeconomic status. In Class and Schools, Rothstein argues that this is because wealthier students have parents who can spend more time with them and more money on enrichment programs for them. He also writes that wealthy students also generally have better health and more housing stability than their lower-income peers, both of which also lead to higher achievement.
Many of these shortcomings are inherent to these types of standardized tests. But some problems with the tests administered to children in many states are easily avoidable. A 2013 investigation by Heather Vogell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that problems like poorly-worded questions, missing pages in exam booklets, and malfunctions in answer-sheet scanners were commonplace in high-stakes standardized tests administered in states across the country, and that “the vast majority of states have experienced testing problems—some repeatedly.”
Deutermann has seen these types of problems in the tests her son had to take: “[The test questions] are not age appropriate, they’re riddled with mistakes. There have been mistakes through the entire test. … There’s no accountability for the test maker.” Neely-Randall agrees, saying the tests are “developmentally inappropriate—and actually I would go so far as to say abusive—to students.”
Toward a Better Accountability System
Given all of these problems with standardized testing, it seems that the civil rights issue is too much testing, not too little. Instead of forcing low-income schools to spend millions of dollars and countless hours of class time preparing for and administering standardized tests that only serve to prove, oftentimes inaccurately, what we already know about the achievement gap, we should use those resources to expand programs in the arts and humanities, to provide incentive pay to attract teachers to areas where they are needed most, and to decrease class sizes, all things that could actually make a difference for disadvantaged students.
This is not to say that America’s accountability system should be completely dismantled. Politicians and schools can de-emphasize testing while still ensuring high achievement. Student and teacher evaluations can take multiple measures of performance into account. The amount of standardized tests students have to take can be drastically reduced. The fewer standardized tests that students do take can incorporate more open-ended questions that force students to think critically and outside the box
Thirteen years after NCLB’s mandates were first set into place, the rhetoric used by politicians and pundits is sounding more and more like that which the same politicians and pundits used to endorse NCLB. Congress would be ill advised to try to use high-stakes test-based accountability to narrow the achievement gap and expect a different result than the aftermath of the 2002 law. It is time to acknowledge that putting an enormous amount of weight on standardized test scores does not work, and to move on to other solutions.
Regardless of the outcome of the current debate, grassroots activists like Deutermann will continue to fight against harmful test-based accountability systems like New York’s. “This is an epidemic,” she said. “It’s happening everywhere, with all sorts of kids, from the smartest kids to the kids that struggle the most, from Republicans to Democrats, from kids in low-income districts to kids in high-performing districts. It doesn’t matter where you are, the stories are exactly the same.”
“We may be passive when it comes to all the other things [corporate reformers] have interjected themselves into,” Deutermann warned, “but when you mess with our kids, that’s when the claws come out.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons / Agência Brasil; Wikimedia Commons / Executive Office of the President of the United States; Wikimedia Commons / Felix Ling