Sunday, April 10, 2016

Refusing the Test

For more than a decade I have publicly voiced my concerns about high stakes standardized testing.  I’ve spoken at educational events.  I’ve published my feelings in books and articles.  I’ve written on this blog and others that these tests – and the teaching to tests that results from high stakes punishments – are bad for our kids.

I had hoped that educators, bolstered by parental involvement in the last two years, would be able to right the wrongs imposed by the federal and state governments since the introduction of No Child Left Behind.

I had hoped that by now we would be using standardized tests for diagnostic purposes and to help funnel resources to schools that need them.

I had hoped I would not have to have write a letter to my children’s principal telling her that they would be refusing to take the test.

Unfortunately, none of these hopes have been realized.

In the past month I’ve seen posts in my social networks from my colleagues in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York who have made the decision to “opt-out.”  I add my voice from New Jersey to this list.

Christopher Lehman, founder of the Educator Collaborative, and parent of a third grader in NY, has written a wonderful post that articulates why we, as parents, need to take a stand.

Like Chris, I do not think that standardized tests, particularly those that punish students, teachers, and schools through high stakes, allow us to “demonstrate effectiveness.” 

My most salient reasons for standing against high stakes testing are described in this post, and I’ll repost excerpts from it here:
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 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. 
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 essentially, 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 a quality assessment-instruction cycle.  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.  

Testing takes time.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.   

Today I post the fourth post on my personal blog related to standardized testing.  (You can read the others here, here, and here.)  I had really hoped I wouldn’t be writing about this issue again.  I had really hoped that I would never have to make the decision as a parent to refuse the test on behalf of my children.

As Chris says, there is hope.  If parents speak out about the harm that high stakes tests do to all children, we can be change agents.  For me this argument is not about PARCC, Common Core, and big data – though I recognize the perspective of those who feel strongly about these issues.  For me this argument is about the fundamental value of public education for all.  This value is destroyed when we limit possibilities.  High stakes tests are not the answer; they contribute to the problem, and we must take a stand against them. 

For those parents in NJ who want to learn more about this issue, please visit Save Our Schools NJ.  In NJ students must “refuse” to take the test (not opt out), and policies across the state vary about how parents can refuse on behalf of their children.  Policies also vary on how students who refuse (either on their own accord or by parent refusal) will be treated.

Here is a template for the letter I will be sending to my children’s school.  Please feel free to download and adapt for your purposes.