The new year has ushered in a welcome discussion over the harm that more than a decade of over-emphasis on high-stakes End of Grade and End of Course tests has done to North Carolina students and their public schools.
The current spate of over-testing is the direct and inevitable result of testing mandates enacted at both federal and state levels. The situation will improve only when those mandates change.
Federal efforts to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind legislation and the opening of the North Carolina legislative session provide an opportunity for positive action. As parents, teachers and administrators work with elected officials to rein in out-of-control testing, we should keep in mind five key points.
1Standardized exams, by nature, can test only a fraction of the material that students need to learn. They cannot cover key 21st century skills such as innovation, collaboration and resourcefulness.
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2Standardized exams, by nature, are designed to provide a broad snapshot of student performance. They can be useful for broad comparisons, such as between the general achievement levels of different groups of students. They are not scientifically valid measures of individual abilities. Test scores simply do not neatly correlate to the quality of individual teachers, nor do they effectively indicate the career or college readiness of individual students.
3High-stakes consequences attached to standardized test scores – among them A-F school grades, teacher evaluations and student retention – inevitably spawn more test prep and practice testing, as well as greater focus on the fraction of material the tests cover. Rather than enhancing student education, this narrowed focus eliminates other material of equal or greater value, dampens student enthusiasm for learning and drives talented teachers out of the profession.
4While the disaggregated data from standardized tests have been useful in identifying broad patterns of racial and economic achievement gaps, the current regime of high-stakes testing has had profoundly negative effects on low-income and minority children. In particular, testing has been identified as a significant contributor to high dropout rates and the school-to-prison pipeline.
5The increasing amounts of time, energy and money absorbed by standardized tests and the technology required to administer them could be far better spent on measures that contribute directly to student learning, such as smaller classes or trained reading specialists.
Our current high-stakes testing regime does not provide accountability, but an expensive, harmful illusion of accountability.
This illusion has proved quite profitable to those who sell tests, test-prep materials and analytical software. It has fueled numerous political careers. But these gains have come at the expense of children – and our state’s future.
As we ponder how to return standardized testing to a useful role in education, we should hew to the following priorities.
• Remove high stakes from standardized tests. Their value lies in judicious use of the information they provide, not in the use of test scores as either a carrot or a stick.
• Deploy the minimal amount of testing required to achieve an objective. For example, monitoring achievement gaps and differences between schools and districts does not require testing every child in every grade every year. That information can be obtained through sampling or through grade-span testing – testing one grade each in elementary, middle and high schools.
• Consult closely with classroom teachers at every grade level about which tests produce information that genuinely helps them in the work of teaching children.
• Account for whether the children at any given school are in fact developing the skills they need to face the challenges of the 21st century. This requires not a battery of standardized exams but a careful examination of the actual work that students do during a school year. Models such as the New York Performance Standards Consortium can lead the way.
While we believe firmly in assessment and accountability, assessments must be supported by quality research and must play a direct role in helping teachers provide the rich, varied educational experience that parents want and students need. The current test-and-punish regime does far more harm than good. It is time to move beyond it.
Janna Siegel Robertson is professor of education at UNC-Wilmington and co-coordinator of the UNCW Dropout Prevention Coalition. Pamela Grundy is chair of the Charlotte-based advocacy group MecklenburgACTS.org. Both have children in North Carolina public schools.