Thursday, April 10, 2014

What if they gave a test and nobody came?

It is standardized testing season in elementary and secondary schools across the nation. I cannot remember a time in the past 40 years, where this testing season has stirred-up so much controversy. Parents all over, but especially in New York, are opting their children out of the tests. Outraged champions of reform, like Michelle Rhee and Chester Finn, are chastising any and all who would opt out. Today the New York Times ran an anti-Common Core test op-ed by Elizabeth Phillips, Principal of PS 231 in Brooklyn, NY. Testing seems to be on everyone’s mind right now and the opposing camps are getting “testy” indeed.

And so today I am wondering, what if they gave the tests and nobody came? What would be the consequences? Would our education system as we know it fall apart and would children run amok in the streets like a scene from a Dickens novel? Would the country fall farther behind Finland and Singapore in educational achievement? Would the sun fall out of the sky? Would the Kansas City Royals win the pennant? Not likely.

In truth, if they gave the tests and nobody came very little would change as it relates to children, their teachers and their learning. The only thing these state-wide standardized tests measure with any accuracy is the socio-economic status of a child’s parents. David Berliner has addressed this very well here. The tests are less than useful for the classroom teacher since the results are rarely available to them in a timely manner (the students have moved on before the results are delivered to the school sometime in the summer) and even when they are delivered they offer scant information about what kinds of topics individual learners had difficulty with. Teachers gather much better and much more useful diagnostic information by working alongside the children daily, watching as they problem solve, reading what they write, listening while they read, asking them questions and listening to their responses.

So what would happen if nobody took the standardized tests? Here a just a few of the possible outcomes:
·         Children would get more time for genuine instruction, not test prep and day after day of testing.
·         Non-tested subjects, such as the arts, would be returned to their rightful place in the curriculum.
·         Teachers and students would have less stress.
·         Pearson, Inc. would have to find some other way to enrich its stockholders.
·         Schools could take all the money they are not spending on tests, test prep materials and test scoring and reduce class sizes and hire art teachers and librarians.
·         Arne Duncan would have to start talking about teaching and learning instead of testing, closing schools, bad teachers and “suburban moms."
·         Instead of trying to measure teacher performance by their students' performance on a standardized test, schools could spend their resources on more productive means of teacher improvement such as creating a collaborative culture and developing productive professional learning communities.

I am not opposed to tests. Tests can be one means of focusing student learning and of getting a snapshot of a moment in time in a student’s development. As a history teacher, I created and administered tests. I tried to give tests that were also learning experiences for the children. I did design tests that were criterion referenced; what I tested is what I had taught. As a reading specialist, I have administered many tests, both standardized and teacher developed as an aid in diagnosing student strengths and weaknesses in literacy. I like to think that I never gave a test that was unfair or developmentally inappropriate, that did not give the students useful feedback and did not help me teach better. I am sure I failed at this effort at times, but I got better as I learned more about my profession.

I am not even opposed to all standardized tests. I think occasional standardized tests are necessary for a school or a school district to ask itself, “How are we doing?” I think a school district can take such a measure of itself, reasonably, by testing in grades 3, 8 and 11. This should provide plenty of information for schools to take appropriate action. The only purpose behind testing children every year, something they don't do in Finland, is to feed the false narrative of "failing schools" and "bad teachers."

Schools can and do need to be better at providing a rich, all-encompassing curriculum to students. Teachers can and do need to get better at meeting the needs of all children in their classrooms. Administrators can and do need to get better at promoting environments that create the collegiality necessary for continued professional development. We all need to continually strive to get better at our craft and to provide for the children entrusted to our care.

We can always do better, but of the many things that will help us do better, standardized tests are well down the list.

So, I am encouraged by the opt out movement especially if by opting out, we can opt in to better learning opportunities for all kids.

I was going to end this piece by recommending you visit the United Opt Out website. Unfortunately, the website has been hacked and destroyed in an act of sabotage. So for now, I will send you to the group’s Facebook page here. I wonder who could be behind the sabotage? As my old history professor once told me, “Follow the money.”