Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Standardized Testing: Time to Cry "Enough!"

Like millions of school teachers, I have deep concerns about the path American education is currently following. 

I think most of us feel a monomaniacal focus on standardized testing has been detrimental to learning. I believe most of us feel billions of dollars wasted on testing might better have been spent directly on meeting the needs of children. That’s tragedy enough, if we go not a syllable farther.

I haven’t seen figures recently; but in 2012 it was estimated testing cost the states $1.7 billion annually. School reformers, those people who never seem to teach, called that a mere pittance. That said it was worth the expense to have all the valuable data! Why a couple of billion was hardly anything at all! Not if we stopped to consider the total cost of U. S. public education, which the Brookings Institute claimed at the time was roughly $600 billion per year. And did we already mention all that valuable data?

Like most real teachers, who worked with real kids, I couldn’t see it. First of all, $1.7 billion represented nothing more than the cost of “primary assessment contracts.” That’s what states paid companies to buy tests.

Forget the other attendant costs for a moment and focus on what that money, wisely spent, might have meant. Every school in American could use more counseling help. For $1.7 billion, we could have hired 34,000 additional counselors ($50,000 each) and asked them to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of children.

Nope. We bought giant stacks of A, B, C, D tests.

What else might we have used that money for if we wanted to help children? We might have escorted 1.7 million boys and girls to the nearest book stores every year and handed over $100 gift certifcates and let them buy books they liked. 

It’s bad enough we asked a generation of young Americans to devote their best years to coloring in bubble tests. It’s worse to think educators have been forced to sacrifice ten or twenty percent of instructional time to “teach to the tests.” It smacks of insanity to keep following the same path if testing hasn’t worked.

And evidence indicates it has not.

Are students better prepared to compete in a global economy or succeed at a college level? ACT scores indicate they are not. If we go back to 2001, before No Child Left Behind was enacted, we see the only noticeable change is that students who take the optional writing test on the ACT fare worse:

We can turn to SAT results and renew our hopes. Ah, no. Again, there’s not a sliver of evidence that more testing has worked:

How about trends on NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) reports? What do they show? Have reading scores improved? In a way. There are gains at the 9- and 13-year-old levels (not shown), which probably have much to do with all the cramming teachers in the lower grades are forced to do. But any “progress” dissipates by the time young Americans finish high school. Below are NAEP reading scores for 17-year-olds, going back to 1971. May the gods of knowledge have mercy! Reading scores were higher two decades ago. All that money spent on testing! What good did it do?

Math scores for seniors have been stagnant, too. Results remain fundamentally unchanged since 1992:

Ironically, the clamor for increased standardized testing followed hard in the wake of release of the first PISA results in 2000. Based on scores provided by the Program for International Student Assessment, an organization which had not even existed before, cries of horror filled this great American land. In 2000, U. S. students finished 14th in reading and, like, 10,000th in science and math. 

(Okay, I exaggerated a little.)

(Typical PISA results from 2009 shown below.)

So the experts (who, as I have noted, almost never seem to teach) insisted we do something; and what we had to do, they screamed, was give more and more tests and spend more and more time prepping for tests. And what, again, we must ask, have we accomplished? Below are PISA results, shown on a pathetic graph I just made.

(Graph-making is obviously not my forte.)

The blue bars represent scores for U. S. students in math. The red bars represent science. Green indicates reading. The groups, 1, 2, show results from 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012. 

(U. S. reading scores in 2006 were disqualified.)

So what we see here—after all the time, effort and money devoted to raising scores—is a decline in all three areas on the PISA test. Our students are doing worse on the very tests that proved we needed to have more standardized tests!

At this point, if you care about kids, you hardly know whether to laugh or to cry, or in my case to curse.

Frankly, we have been following the same path for almost fifteen years, listening to all the experts, and we have ended up going in dizzying circles. It’s time to take back our schools and run them in the interests of children. It’s time to tell testing companies, know-it-all reformers, bureaucrats and politicians, we have had our fill. We will not fill in more bubbles on all your standardized tests. 

Enough is enough.

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