Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Testy Test-Takers T’ain’t Takin’ Tests

What a mess! On the one hand, there have been massive complaints that where test scores from standardized tests are used for just about any ostensibly legitimate purpose – evaluating a student’s qualifications to move on to the next grade or graduate, measuring the quality of a particular teacher, school or school district, assessing the effectiveness of new tools and techniques, determining where change or additional focus is needed, etc., etc. – teachers are just “teaching to the test.” The arguments persist that individual needs and the required flexibility that different environments and communities require are simply ignored. Even commitments to the Common Core curriculum, where basic standard courses (from math and science to English) need to be taught simply as the most basic skills to function in a modern world, are increasingly challenged. Too many tests on too many subjects, we hear.
There has been a rebellion all over the United States in standardized testing with a parallel decrease in the comparable levels of achievement of average American students compared against so many other countries in the world. Our math and reading/comprehension abilities seem to have plummeted amidst the mire of testing controversy. As state legislatures slashed and burned educational budgets, from public primary to the highest level of public graduate schools, the rebellion against standardized testing lets those political miscreants hide from the long-term damage they have heaped on the students that they have subjected to decreased levels of quality and increased levels of crowding. And too many students aren’t even getting exposure even to that reduced level of education; public high school dropout rates in large inner city communities still hover above 50%.
Further, qualifying for federal educational support requires testing: “Federal law requires that at least 95 percent of eligible students take the annual tests, and districts that fall short may face penalties, including a loss of federal aid. But imposing penalties would further damage poor districts that already lack sufficient money to improve their academic performance or help subpar students with remedial tutoring. At the same time, financial penalties might not persuade districts with the highest opt-out rates — often the wealthier ones — to participate, since they are apt to receive little federal funding… Although the state can also withhold funds, officials seem reluctant to stoke further parental anger.” Editorial Op-Ed, New York Times, August 14th.
But while testing seems necessary, there is justification for most of the criticism. Where students can opt out of these standardized tests, they do… in droves. Take New York State, for example, a state with some of the toughest standards in the nation. “An alarming 200,000, or 20 percent, of the students in grades three through eight in New York State public schools this year refused to take the state’s standardized tests in reading and math that are supposed to measure progress in meeting national academic standards.
“This ill-conceived boycott could damage educational reform — desperately needed in poor and rural communities — and undermine the Common Core standards adopted by New York and many other states. The standards offer the best hope for holding school districts accountable for educating all students, regardless of race or income.
“The 200,000 students, out of 1.1 million, who skipped the tests did not have a known valid reason, like illness. That was quadruple the number from the year before and by far the highest opt-out rate for any state. In some school districts the opt-out rate was above 80 percent. For the most part, those opting out were white and in wealthy or middle-class communities. In New York City, less than 2 percent opted out.
“Many parents who oppose the tests say the tests are too difficult or do not track with classroom instruction. Of the students who took the tests statewide, only 31 percent had a proficient score on reading while 38 percent were proficient in math.
“And teachers have complained that they will be judged unfairly based on how well students perform on tests that they consider faulty; at least one of their union leaders urged parents to boycott the tests.” NY Times. Legislatures in many states, usually in the red zone, have also begun to reject such standardized testing. Even some major universities, public and private, are reconsidering the value of SAT requirements.
But when it comes to making sure our children can manage the basics, math and reading/comprehension, I agree with the NY Times Editorial Board that those two arenas, where bias and flexibility are least likely to impact results, should never be the sacrificial lambs to angry parents who can’t believe that their Johnny and Susie cannot read or calculate at their grade level and allow legislators to obfuscate the damage their policies have inflicted on the young… and ultimately American competitiveness in a harsh and competitive global marketplace. Let that anger vent against the schools that failed the kids, legislators who determine school budgets and perhaps at the parents themselves for not caring enough to support their own children.
I’m Peter Dekom, and not investing in and evaluating education now creates an accelerating level of income inequality and falling competitive skills for our future.

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