Friday, March 25, 2016

Say No to Standardized Tests

This country was born of civil disobedience. From the moment a band of angry colonists threw the British tea into the harbor in 1773, civil disobedience has been a way for Americans to call attention to injustice. In the 1800's we had the abolitionist movement, Susan B. Anthony illegally voting to highlight the plight of women and Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay his taxes that supported war and slavery. In the 20th century we had, of course, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests. In the 21st century we have the standardized testing opt out movement.

Our history of (mostly) peaceful protest of governmental missteps is well established and it has shown, over the long haul, to be effective. From the Boston Tea Party came a new nation, form the abolitionist movement came the end of slavery, from the suffragist movement came more equality for women, from the civil rights movement came the end of Jim Crow and the start of a new chapter on race relations in the country. From the opt out movement, could come the more rational use of standardized testing in schools and an improved educational experience for kids.

The rational use of standardized tests would mean that the tests were administered about three times in the school life of a child -  say in third, eighth and eleventh grade. These tests would not be used to punish children, teachers or schools, but to inform parents, teachers and schools about what programs are being successful and what programs need to be improved. This is really all that these tests are good for: to provide some indicators of program effectiveness in a school overall.

Yearly testing advocates say that these tests are the only way we can assure parents that their children are getting the education they deserve.  Testing advocates say that if we are to close the achievement gap, we need the yearly data that standardized tests provide. They say that standardized tests will tell us where we need to spend our resources to close the achievement gap. They insist that standardized tests will separate the good teachers from the bad. All of this is false.

The only thing that standardized tests measure with any certainty is the relative income levels of the children who attend that school. All standardized tests do, year after year, is affirm that we have an achievement gap, which can better be understood as an opportunity gap. Where kids have rich and rewarding opportunities to grow and thrive, they do well on these tests. Where they don’t have these opportunities, they do not do well. We do not need yearly tests to tell us that. All we need do is walk down the streets of a leafy suburb and then walk down the street of an inner city neighborhood.

Almost fifteen years of a test and punish agenda has not managed to get more resources into needy areas. Instead these areas, such as those in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago are being starved of resources. Schools are being closed, buildings are falling apart and cheap and ineffective solutions like charter schools and vouchers are being foisted on the school children in the guise of opportunity.

Using standardized tests to evaluate teachers has also been roundly discredited. The tests are simply inadequate for providing any useful information on who is a good teacher and who is not. Children are being asked to take a test to determine their teachers’ ability, apparently because the adults around them can’t figure out a better way to assess teacher effectiveness.

Many of the by-products of standardized testing work directly against a quality education. When standardized tests are used to punish children, teachers and schools, it is inevitable that the rich curriculum children deserve will narrow. Money and time resources will be focused on tested areas to the detriment of the arts and physical education. Teachers, fearing their jobs and their schools are under the gun, will resort to instructional practices that focus on skill and drill and not engagement in learning. The tests end up driving the curriculum, the instruction and the overall school experience.

Parents have the power to put an end to this very wrong headed policy through civil disobedience. Education reformers know this, which is why they are conducting a full out publicity campaign to champion the tests or, in some cases, scare people into compliance. When parents opt their children out of testing, they are not just saying no to the test, they are saying no to a narrow approach to their children’s schooling. They are saying, I want better for my child. I want a full, broad program of study that engages my child in all the richness that a first class education can be.

President Obama and thousands of other people of means have opted out of this testing craziness by sending their children to elite private schools. I am sure that they would want the same opportunity for those of us whose best or only option is public school. One way we can make it clear that we want the best education for our children is by saying no to standardized tests.

My advice? Strike a blow for public education. Opt Out.

For information on how to opt out go to the United Opt Out web site here:

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