Friday, March 28, 2014

Why I Am Against High Stakes Testing

My children were born at 36 weeks gestation - premature by official standards and “full term” to most twin mamas.  They were tiny, well below average in weight, and it was my doctor’s goal to beef them up.  Each visit she weighed my son, who left the hospital at just over 4.5 lbs, and we charted the progress.  By his 6-month checkup, he weighed 16 pounds (within the average range for all babies).  Though most babies double their birth weight by 6 months, my son nearly quadrupled his.  

I have two points to make about this story.

First, though I charted the progress, a particular weight was never my ultimate goal.  If it had been, I likely would have chosen to supplement mother’s milk with formula and early introduction to solids. These interventions surely would have introduced additional calories and helped to increase the numbers on the scale.  Instead, I gave my baby what I thought was best for his development - mother’s milk - and allowed him to grow at his own pace.

And two, my little boy did not grow because the doctor weighed him every month.  He grew because he had what nourished him.

I share this anecdote as an analogy because the speaker at my doctoral graduation said, “You don’t make cows fatter by weighing them, and you don’t make kids smarter by testing them.”  When I Googled the phrase to see if I could locate the origin of this idea, I found a nice explanation of measurement, why it matters, and why “you can’t fatten a cow simply by weighing it every day.”   The author (outside the field of education) suggests that

  • You can't aim without measurable targets
  • You won't improve if you don't keep score
  • You can't manage it if you can't measure it
  • What gets measured gets done
  • What pays off gets done first

All of these points apply to learning, and it is for these reasons that teachers are trained to set learning targets, assess students’ progress toward those targets, and alter instruction to help individuals meet these learning goals.  This process is practiced as a cycle of assessment and instruction - and it happens constantly.  Sometimes assessments are cumulative, asking students to demonstrate learning through performance on a test or project; often assessments happen on the fly as teachers interact with students, take notes on what they observe, and reflect on both student work and their interactions.  These assessments allow teachers to give individual students what they need in order to grow.

And now to the heart of the matter.

Yesterday I started a Facebook group for parents in NJ who are concerned about the effects of corporate and political initiatives that are disrupting our schools’ ability to give individual students what they need in order to grow.  I thought hard about what I would title this group, and I settled on “NJ Parents Against High Stakes Testing.”  The culture of high stakes testing that dominates current educational “reforms” (though these may be considered takeovers more than they are positive reforms) worries me for a variety of reasons.  Because I have seen comments from parents who are unsure where they stand, I wanted to articulate my own stance in hopes that it might help others to understand why I speak out against these kinds of tests.

First, I want to reiterate that I am not against assessment, nor am I against setting targets for learning and working toward those targets.  I believe that schools, teachers, and students should work toward goals that require - and allow for - growth.  I also believe that school communities can offer some judgment about how well each individual performs in relation to those goals.  Understanding areas for improvement is an important part of learning.

I do not believe that yearly high stakes testing offers this kind of atmosphere.  These are the most salient of my reasons:


The test provides one snapshot of my child.
In order to get into my home office, I walk by a wall of photos that I have carefully selected to display. I see my son and daughter over their 6 years in various stages of joy.  There is not a bad photo among them - all of the bad ones are filed away in photo boxes or discarded in the trash.  We share the best.

But what if I did not have the option to choose?  What if I were limited to one snapshot per year? Would I want to put so many on the wall to display to my friends and family (and for me to look at each day)?  And what if that one snapshot of my daughter catches her with her eyes closed, yet my son has a handsome smile?  When I display them both, how will my daughter feel, knowing that shot is not really representative of her?

Children grow over time and at different rates.  They have good days and bad days.  It is not appropriate to judge a child’s proficiency in any task by their performance on one test, taken in a sterile setting, on a day arbitrarily assigned by the state.  

Though some parents argue that learning to take these kinds of tests is important for taking tests in the future (e.g., SAT, LSAT), we can develop test-taking skills of this nature throughout learning, rather than by testing them yearly.  We don’t make cows fatter by weighing them constantly.

Tests limit curriculum.
My colleague Troy Hicks and I articulated some of the ways that testing limits curriculum (specifically writing) in this post on Writers Who Care.  There are other examples that I could share, but the “Results Count” post shared above makes the argument for me.  “What gets measured, gets done.”  Yes, and what gets tested, gets taught.

Though this might seem like a strength of tests, in actuality, high stakes exams measure very little of what we want children to learn.  For example, this report from the Carnegie corporation explains that most standardized assessments of reading focus on comprehension strategies for identifying main idea and making inferences, but not on critical analysis or synthesis. It would not be possible to test children on all of the knowledge and skills that they learn - they would spend more time in testing than they do in learning.  As of now in NJ, ELA and math are privileged.  Science and social studies may gain status.  But how about all of the other areas?  And if tests only measure part of what we want kids to be able to know and do within a discipline, like the reading tests do, are they a true assessment of learning? What gets tested, gets taught.


Teachers and schools are evaluated based on scores that are one snapshot of my child.
The authors of the Carnegie report cited above state that though the tests may be able to tell educators “who struggles with reading, they cannot provide insight into why these students struggle” (p. 2).  Thus, these tests have little place in the assessment-instruction cycle that I mention above.  If teachers do not get data that helps them to alter instruction for a student, how can they be held accountable for that student’s performance on a future test?

I have been bothered for a decade by classifications of schools as “failing” because they do not hit benchmarks, including test scores, that do not take the school’s context into account.  We punish children and families when we punish schools, and a better approach would be to invest in professional development - real PD that extends over time and provides teachers with support - rather than sanctioning schools and requiring inhuman feats to achieve excellence without appropriate time and resources.  

I am also incredibly bothered by the path NJ has taken to link test scores to teacher evaluations.  The explanation of the state’s Teacher Evaluation can be found here.  Be warned.  This is complicated stuff. As far as I understand, teachers in tested subjects (English and math, grades 4 - 8) will have 30% of their evaluation tied to test scores, or the Student Growth Percentiles.  These SGP data are “a measure of how much a student improves his or her NJ ASK score from the previous year as compared to academic peers across the state.”  Though I don’t know what this means in terms of the actual calculations, there are several concerns here: (1) only a subset of teachers are held accountable, (2) teachers are held accountable in comparison to scores of others, and (3) nearly a third of the evaluation is based on the difference between two single snapshots of student performance, snapshots that measure a limited amount of what is actually taught or what really matters.

In some ways this system is a better one than assigning a teacher a score based on students she has never taught (as is done in Florida).  However, I can only speculate on the effects this system will have on teaching and learning over time.  Principals are also held accountable for these scores.  So in effect, entire buildings may succumb to a focus on the test, resentment, and self-preservation - rather than engaging in a rich culture of collaboration and community where children can grow and thrive.


Testing takes time.
In his state of the state address, Governor Christie called for an extended school year/day in order to make NJ students more competitive.  Proponents of this approach cite research that suggests that more instructional time leads to more learning.  While this would be a debate for another conversation, it is important to understand that testing, divorced from assessment-instruction cycle as it currently is, does not equal instructional time.  In fact, it takes away from it.  It takes away on the test days themselves, and it takes away from the stuff of real learning in the classroom when schools  and teachers adjust their curricula to focus on tested items.   As the “Results Count” article suggests, “Even if you measure the cow every hour it will not change anything that will change the end result – her weight gain. In fact, if you have her trotting on and off the scale hourly, her weight is likely to go down. To fatten the cow, someone must become the change agent developing insights on those behaviors and variables that cause cows to gain weight.” If we spend too much time testing kids, we cannot become change agents to affect their development as learners.


So what to do?
My colleagues at Writers Who Care have collected resources for Opting Out, a growing movement of parents, like me, who want to take a stand against testing.  I am not convinced that opting out is enough, and, in fact, the decision to opt out is complicated, as this mom from Colorado explains.  Given the way teachers and schools are evaluated, I may, as an individual, do harm to my children’s teachers if I opt out.   And what effect will one parent’s decision have on the larger issue?  Can my decision to opt out really make a change?  There are other issues with opting out in NJ, namely the fact that schools are not permitted to offer alternate activities for children who opt out.

I strongly believe a change needs to be made - and that parents need to lead this cause from outside the classroom.  We need to take back our children’s education by speaking up for them and speaking out against testing that brings high stakes to children, their teachers, and their schools.  We, as a society, need to value educators as professionals.  This requires more than opting out.  It requires changes in policies at both the state and federal levels. The Network for Public Education is tackling the issue by calling on Congress to hold hearings on abusive testing practices.  I encourage NJ parents to join conversations that are occurring throughout the state so that we can make a change that will benefit our children.