How We End The War Over Standardized Testing

Jeff Bryant

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s, during the time of the Cold War, remembers our nation’s response to the threat of nuclear war by enforcing “duck and cover” drills in our schools.

The drill would start with the shrill whistle blast over the PA speaker at the front of the classroom – once, twice, then again.

“Class! Class!” the teacher would shout, “Stop what you’re doing and duck and cover.”

Duck and cover entailed dropping to the floor, on your knees, under your desk, being sure to rest your forehead on one arm, while covering your head with the other. The purpose of this perverted yoga pose was to protect your head from getting hit by the shattering windows and falling chunks of concrete caused by a nuclear bomb explosion.

While you’re in squat mode, the teacher paced through the aisles to inspect which students were doing it right and which needed correcting. With only the tap-tap of the teacher’s shoes breaking the thick silence, your knees would grow hot with pain, and your head would gradually turn into a sweaty meatball under the pressure of the self-imposed headlock.

Your only hope was that some kid would fart, and the whole class bust out in laughter. But eventually, the principal would come back on the speaker and whistle an “all clear.”

A generation removed from that time, you have to agree it’s preposterous we ever went through such a ritual.

Of course, a silly drill wasn’t going to save us from nuclear holocaust. But we did it anyway, because… Because it made the adults feel better? Because we didn’t know what else to do?

Today there’s a similar sort of charade carried out in schools across the nation. It’s called standardized testing.

Only this time, we’re imposing the schoolhouse drill, not to protect our children from nuclear annihilation, but to protect them from supposed widespread education malpractice being carried out by classroom teachers and school administrators. And the drill isn’t over in fifteen minutes.

If you feel that analogy is over the top, consider the rationale for testing. Too many schools, we’re told, are “failure factories” that doom poor kids and imperil the middle class. Public schools have been branded a national security threat.

The tests, we’ve been told, are the only way we know “as parents, as teachers, for students themselves to know how they’re doing.” They are “key to student success.” They are as essential for our children as “a trip to the doctor.” People even go so far as to compare standardized testing to the need to vaccinate children against deadly infectious diseases. Ending the tests would “endanger students” and would “endanger schools.” The tests ensure “every student matters,” especially the low-performing ones.

Yet, as testing season rolls out this school year, loud protests are breaking out in school districts across the country. While politicians and policy leaders insist the tests must go on, educators and parents are painstakingly pointing to evidence the tests do more harm than good, and we’re sliding into a Cold War of a different sort, where earnest proponents of “school accountability” square off against ardent activists who demand freedom from “government regulation.”

At a time such as this, when anger is setting in and ideological positions are hardening, it’s good to remember what really did help protect us from the threat of nuclear extinction. It wasn’t duck and cover. It was a dialogue.

A Nationwide Rebellion To Standardized Testing

As Valerie Strauss reports from her blog at The Washington Post, as testing season started to roll out in New Mexico, hundreds of students in different cities took to the streets in protest. “In New Jersey and other states, thousands of students refused to take the tests,” Strauss writes.

In a recent article in US News & World Report, education correspondent Allie Bidwell writes, “Tens of thousands of parents and students nationwide are engaging in civil disobedience by refusing to participate in federally mandated standardized tests.”

PBS education correspondent John Merrow went to the scenes of protests and demonstrations in New Jersey to find thousands of students and parents across the state refusing to take new tests that would require 11 hours of seat time over nine days. “Protesters are from across the spectrum and from opposite sides of the political aisle,” Merrow explains.

Resistance to testing “has been building, in Florida, New York, Washington, Colorado, and elsewhere,” Merrow reports.

Folks at The National Center for Fair and Open Testing keep a running count on resistance to standardized testing and find school districts and states across the country – from California, to Ohio, to New York, to Main – are being pressured by the growing rebellion to allow parents to opt their children out of tests.

What’s Wrong With Standardized Testing

There is widespread concern the tests are deliberately designed to ensure more children will fail, especially those students who are dual-language learners or who have chronic learning problems.

“It was very confusing,” a student Merrow interviews complains, based on her experience taking a sample test. “You’re supposed to pick one right answer … There’s never going to be one right way to solve a problem, so why should there be one right answer?”

A local news story from New Mexico Strauss links to quotes a student saying the testing mandate “feels like we’re being pressured to take a test that we feel like we’re bound to fail.”

But fear of failure is not the only motivation behind the growing opt out movement.

Merrow interviews parents who complain testing is “eating up a lot of instruction time with test preparation and test drilling,” and students who argue, “I’m trying to push back against the test because I’m not just a number.”

Bidwell, in her report, quotes Tim Slekar, a leader of the United Opt Out movement in Wisconsin, who says, “Opt-out is not an anti-testing movement. This is a movement to reclaim and do what’s right for kids in public schools. This is a movement to restore real learning.”

Bidwell also points to a 2014 PDK/Gallup survey that “showed that 68 percent of public school parents said they do not believe standardized tests are helpful to teachers.” Those beliefs have a basis in fact. Because sores from the tests are not presented until many months after the students take them – often, in fact, when the students have moved on to another teacher or even another school – they are of little use to teachers.

Also, there are concerns the tests are being pushed on students when they are not developmentally ready for them. As a recent report in Slate finds, many states are now imposing standardized tests on kindergartners. Some teachers are refusing.

“Are we measuring what we really want to measure in education?” NPR education journalist Anya Kamenetz asks. In an excerpt from her recent book, appearing in New York Magazine, she explains, “A flood of recent research has supported the idea that creative problem solving, oral and written communication skills, and critical thinking, plus social and emotional factors, including grit, motivation, and the ability to collaborate, are just as important in determining success as traditional academics. All of these are largely outside the scope of most standardized tests.”

So there are lots of good reasons to end this over-emphasis on testing. But what is the alternative?

Trust, But Verify

Here’s the problem everyone wants to solve: “We’re continually puzzled as we search for high-quality education programs for rural white students, for urban black students, and for English language learners from hundreds of nations,” write education research experts David Berliner and Gene Glass in a recent article in Educational Leadership magazine.

But, they contend, we’re going about it the wrong way. At at time when a nationwide program of imposed standardized testing is rolling out to millions of students, they warn, what may work for some students in one place will likely not work somewhere else.

“Education is simply too complex an endeavor,” they write. “Overselling an idea or program … is a mistake. You’ll need to try it out, probably adapt it to local circumstances, and then it still may not work as intended.”

“Some data are probably better than no data,” they allow. But other factors are more important if we want improvement that will stick: including “having teacher buy-in,” avoiding the overload of changing too many things too quickly, and using a formative evaluation from time to time to check progress.

Their recommendation to “trust, but verify,” the title of their article, harkens back to Cold War times when our nation decided a better alternative to world destruction was to rely on negotiation that would trust the nations involved – in this case, the former Soviet Union – in a mutual disarmament process that could be verified with conclusive information.

The usage of the term “trust, but verify” has evolved in medicine to refer to a way to weigh the results of research findings. Trust, but verify in the management world now refers to a better way to delegate workplace tasks and treat employees.

Trust indeed can go a long way in education.

Where’s The Trust?

Writing at the blog for The Albert Shanker Institute, Greg Anrig of The New Century Foundation explains, “Studies that explore the question of what makes successful schools work never find a silver bullet, but they do consistently pinpoint commonalities in how those schools operate.”

“The most crucial finding,” Anrig explains, “was that the most effective schools … had developed an unusually high degree of ‘relational trust’ among their administrators, teachers, and parents.”

Another study Anrig cites found the most effective schools were ones characterized by strong collaboration, where “teachers had time set aside each week to work with one another to improve instructional practices,” and where test data was something for teachers and administrators to use to identify students who need help, not for bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. and state capitals to use for promulgating punishments.

Our current test-driven school culture simply doesn’t allow for this type of trust and collaboration. Instead, test-driven accountability, competition, and sanctions endlessly force teachers and schools to implement measures they don’t believe in.

The Verification We Need

So while there’s virtually no trust, the verification we have isn’t very good either.

If we want assessments that give us information that is actionable within a reasonable time frame, then what we need are the types of tests educators use in their everyday work.

Demanding schools have those types of assessments in place is fine, but making those assessments standardized, centrally controlled, and implemented en masse across the nation is never going to work.

If we want verification of systemic performance, then we already have something resembling that. It’s called the National Assessment of Education Progress. That test, often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card,” has none of the drawbacks that current tests are plagued by, as Catherine Gewertz reminds us at Education Week. The NAEP is used for diagnostic purposes only, not for punishing schools. It requires that only a sample of students take it, not every student. And it isn’t high stakes, so there’s no pressure for test prep that saps instructional time and causes student and teacher anxiety.

Simply fashioning a school-level version of NAEP, with scores disaggregated by student demographic characteristics, would tell us what we need to know about which students are being underserved.

That kind of policy – one that encourages trust and collaboration but enforces verification that includes a two-pronged assessment system of student and systemic outcomes – could resolve the testing Cold War.

Then maybe we can stop with the duck and cover.

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