Is Standardized Testing Really that Bad? A Special Educator’s Perspective

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Teaching internationally the last few years has definitely led me to miss out on random things from the States.  Some good, some bad. But a good one I just realized is a show called “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”.  I somehow caught on to the show this Thanksgiving break while decompressing and was surprised how funny and erudite it is.  I was even more surprised when YouTube recommended some of his videos that talked about charter schools and standardized testing in schools.  Hearing about these topics in pop culture is a rare gem for me.

However, while I have been feeling his videos, and think we are on the same page on a lot of issues, I was a little put off by the one-sided attack of the movement towards teacher and school accountability via standardized testing. 

It made me want to share some of my experiences which have led me to be a proponent of standardization.  From common assessments in subject areas in a school all the way to statewide, or even country wide standardized tests, I think there is a place for them in every school.

This is due to my experiences working in several schools in several countries as a learning support teacher and having had around 30 co-teaching/push-in partnerships.  I started off my ed career in Palo Alto in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and I’ve worked in low/mid performing schools in Los Angeles and San Jose California, up to the best schools in the Dominican Republic and Ethiopia (i.e. most students going to university, AP classes, IB programs, etc.). 

I’ve also had the great opportunity to partner with teachers in the push-in situation from first year teachers that were rock stars, to teachers that have been in the game for too long and are figuring out the best way to get the fattest retirement package.  From teachers who would show me their spring break travel plans in the middle of a 40 person class where when the teacher wasn’t there one day I had a kid look at me and ask why the teacher didn’t like them, to the former Vermont teacher of the year who everyone loved and who was crushing it in the day to day.

And after seeing the varied schools and working with so many different teachers so closely I strongly feel that when we don’t have standardized testing, and the holding of our educators accountable, we have countless students who are detrimentally affected.  And while it’s not fair that the teachers whom are impactful, take the profession seriously, and use best practices need to be affected by those that don’t, it’s important that the powers that be err on the side of caution and hold all teachers accountable to ensure that the ones who aren’t making it happen make it happen.  And this is done through using standardized assessment methods.

 

SOME OF THE PROBLEMS I’VE SEEN

There was one point in a school year where I was working really hard to help support a student in our push-in class, during our pullout time, and with some low-key interventions.  He was really struggling to grasp the content and show a proficient ability with the skills.  But one day in talking with the teacher about these concerns they said, “Don’t worry, he’s gonna pass”.  Nothing else.  This wasn’t based on a growth trend, or the remaining units, it was based on the fact that many students get passed through classes and grade levels when they aren’t prepared.

They aren’t getting great grades, but if a 70 is needed to pass, they are getting around a 74 all year…for example.

Or alternatively they fail the class and people don’t ask what supports took place before the student failed.

But if we had standardized common assessments for that subject, or for that grade, then we would be in a better position to see how much growth the students are indeed making and what they are capable of doing.  And support as much as possible when they aren’t hitting the expected benchmarks.

There might be many reasons why a student does not do well on a summative assessment, yet if a student is passing their class and failing an assessment related to that content, we have to consider looking at the Tier 1, at the classroom, and see if they are really understanding the standards they are working with.

For if we don’t focus on this, then we have children falling behind and losing the prerequisite skills needed to do well the next year….and the years after that.

It’s not acceptable that one World History class can follow the scope and sequence and the students learn the content and develop the Social Studies skills to do well in their next course, while another World History teacher at the same school loves to talk about travel and cooking foreign foods and always finds a way to relate that passion to what they are studying and is constantly off topic.  True story.

It’s not fair that a child gets turned off of the STEM field because their math teacher gives them worksheets every day and doesn’t get into the PBLs, and the why, and the challenge of math that makes it fun.  And they don’t differentiate the class, and the homework, and the tests, subsequently providing an environment where many students may not be successful.  And then the students say they hate math or aren’t good at it.

But without teachers being held accountable this will happen day after day, unit after unit, year after year.  If there is no outside impetus to improve, and the teacher doesn’t have the intrinsic drive to continuously improve their craft, then we see students’ best interests being neglected when they are allowed to coast through a course without truly understanding the standards.

 

SOME OF THE PROBLEMS OTHERS HAVE SEEN

The StartUp podcast is in the middle of a very exciting season right now that is talking about Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy model.  It’s a charter school in New York City that is attempting to turn the whole ed system around out there.  In the first episode I was shocked to hear an anecdote from a mother who was explaining why she valued Success Academy so much.  She retold a part of her education where at her NYC school if students failed Math 1, they would move on to Math 2, and if they passed math 2 they got credit for math 1….that’s terrible.  

Those are the kinds of past experiences which have led to why we have such a strong charter school movement, and that’s why I feel so strongly that we must have standardized tests to show a certain level of proficiency.  If you can’t pass the Math 1 district standardized test, for example, that likely means that you needed more help.  Instead of schools passing students up, we need to know exactly where they are at and work with the Tier 1 (general ed), and the learning support to help make sure we are giving students all the supports we can to ensure that they understand the material.

Or a story from another podcast called This American Life in the episode titled “Three Miles”.  This hour long episode goes into detail about students from a high needs public school in the Bronx and how they take a day trip to an expensive private school three miles away and some students are deeply affected by the disparities between the two schools. While in the past you may have intuitively guessed that students at this private school are getting a better education and have better educational outcomes, you wouldn’t know that for sure without standardized testing that actually give the public an idea of where students and schools are performing.

At the end of the day we are dealing with children and their families; not widgets in a factory.  While we can see our schools as systems and organizations like other industries in the economy, we have to make a distinction.  Some branches of a library, or the post office, or the FedEx office may not run as smoothly as others, and not employ best practices as well, however the outcome is that they may lose books, or delay packages, or lose profits.  But when schools and districts aren’t running as smoothly as possible and aren’t  hitting learning targets, they are chipping away at people’s dreams and futures.  That’s why it’s imperative that we have ways to see what schools are doing and have a measure to guide their improvement when needed.

 

HOW STANDARDIZED TESTING IS BENEFICIAL

According to Merriam Webster to standardize something means to:

Bring (something) into conformity with a standard

So while many people see “Standardized Testing” as giant state-wide tests with scantrons and high pressure and high stakes, in my experience, and my opinion, standardizing an assessment process doesn’t necessarily mean all this.  It can be a number of different assessment protocols that help educators all look at something in the same way.  And by making these standard assessments at the outset we are backwards planning….UbD style.

Once teachers know what they want students to learn they can then “teach to the test”, or in other words, plan learning activities and assessments to make sure students are learning the given standards they are supposed to be.

And subsequently teachers, teacher coaches, learning support teachers, and evaluators of teachers can use this information to guide what we do, and see what we can do better.

This standardization of assessments can be seen in the following ways:

1)  Common Writing Assessments – with a common grading protocol that are graded in groups with multiple graders

2)  Common Benchmark Assessments – for a subject every unit, etc.; using a scantron so no subjectivity can be put into play (i.e. I know he knows this, I think he was saying x).  Then going over results with the partner teacher, doing item-analysis, planning next steps.

3)  District assessments like we had in Los Angeles Unified

A picture of a scantron
LAUSD’s “Periodic Assessment”

These were important in my experience as a co-teacher because I would see like 27% of students in a class pass a periodic Algebra test and that was real data….different than the grades in the class, and it made me understand that we needed to do more!

This is why standards based grading is so important because cats can’t get credit for behavior, participation, HW, extra credit and be pulling a decent grade, and then bomb the test because they don’t know the standards and skills.

4) IB tests – teachers are working hard to “teach to the test”, the students are learning more than I have seen in any other education system, and the results are public, analyzed, and it pushes teachers to do their best.

5) AP results – similar to the IB tests they results are often posted publicly and students know what teachers have better results (i.e. the same way the school choice movement is looking at what schools are more effective), teachers know, and more importantly admin can look at that data and say, “Hey, we noticed that 1 out of your 12 students passed the exam.  The global average is 57.7%.  I would like you to work with your department head on…….”

If we aren’t doing things like this then you find classrooms teaching the same standards, but having students showing different levels of proficiency.  For example I was co-teaching with a teacher once who gave partial credit while their partner teacher in that grade didn’t.  But students got the same grade on their transcripts for that course.  So one group of 9th graders had lower grades than the other group.  Is that fair?

As an educator I didn’t think it was right, but I can only imagine how a parent would feel in that situation as they have high dreams for their child, but they are being low-key subverted by disparities in assessment.  I would be happy to see more standardization in that situation.

Counter Claims:

What other folks might say

 

1) Schools can’t control the prior history nor the home life of the students

It can easily be argued that that a lot of students in high needs schools aren’t coming to Kindergarten with the same tools and experiences that many other students are. Additionally, circumstances like poverty and childhood trauma hinder growth as children go through the grades.

I agree with that wholeheartedly and have seen it time and again in my own life and my teaching career.

However, some charter schools in high needs areas like Success Academy and KIPP are outperforming many “good” public schools.  I would be willing to bet that there is a correlation between their practices and student success, and I’m not just talking about the test prep that they do, moreso the school uniforms, strict rules, longer class days at times, etc.  But so many districts and schools across the United States aren’t doing what it takes to help move children’s education forward.  They are caught up in union battles, bureaucracy, and plenty of other things that keep children from progressing as much as they could if put in a school system that is putting best practices into full effect.  A system that challenges students, teachers, and parents. 

2)  These standardized tests don’t show the whole picture, the whole student, and what the students have learned

While watching the John Oliver monologue about standardized testing  and his scathing rebuke on Standardized Testing, one clip he inserted was a very emotional appeal made by a young lady who was testifying about how the Florida test made her feel so stupid.  I have cued it up here at minute 9:40:

She mentions that she’s a strong student and has high hopes and dreams, but then her class placements and concept of her academic identity gets affected by low standardized test scores. 

This struck me greatly because this is exactly why I think schools and teachers need to be held accountable via standardized testing.  There are so many students that get passed through the years and are not getting pushed to their limits.  They may feel like a solid student and think they are going to crush it in college, but then they sometimes reach those treacherous moments where they arrive to college and have to take remedial classes. As the Hechinger Report asserted, “A high school diploma, no matter how recently earned, doesn’t guarantee that students are prepared for college”.

How can a student get A’s and B’s in high school English but not pass the college placement test and start college level English classes?

How can you get a diploma that says you have hit the required steps in high school, but can’t write an essay or deeply analyze a grade level text?

Colleges face this problem every year, and that’s one reason why they use high school profiles so they can get a feel for the caliber of the school students are coming from.  Take for example a young Chicana…Latinx lady at the high needs high school I worked at in Los Angeles Unified.  She was well-spoken, witty, did well in the push-in classes I worked with her in, got A’s and B’s in most classes, and wanted to go to Harvard.  Then compare her college app with a young lady from Palo Alto Unified where I went and worked at.  Same application, but an A in a Palo Alto English 11 class is most likely different than an A in the same class at most high needs schools .  That feels like a  contentious statement as I write it down, but it has been happening for generations.

This is all to say that while people may contend that a standardized test doesn’t show their true capabilities, it is clear that a grade on a transcript doesn’t either, and based on my experience, and the experience of all the kids entering college without the foundational skills needed, I trust the results of a standardized test more than a situation where we don’t know how reliable the grades are.

 

3) Some schools are doing too much test prep while others don’t care too much about the test

You hear about the Opt-Out Movement in some schools and areas.  Parents don’t want their children taking the state tests because of things like too much focus on the test, too much time preparing for and taking the tests, results might close down certain schools, some people say the tests aren’t designed well, and other reasons.

While doing some background reading on this movement to fully understand it I came across some good points.  For example, in “8 Reasons to Opt Out” they talk about the wasted time and resources.  And as I think more about how to have math classes that do more than worksheets and practice problems, and as I think about cross curricular Project Based Learning, and all that, I think that student time could be better spent when you look at situations where students are doing a ton of test prep. 

And when you think about how much money likely goes into all the tests you wonder if that money could be spent for more teachers so that we can reduce class sizes, or more instructional coaches to help teachers with developing their best practices.

But at the end of the day I still remain steadfast in my feeling that the standardized tests are necessary.

And while focusing too much on the test is problematic, the alternative to these students in the Success Academy for example doing tons of test prep from late January to April can be the students working in loosely structured chaotic schools with bullying, fights, stealing, tons of lost instruction time, frazzled teachers, etc.  At the end of the day, when comparing outcomes of students who had a ton of test prep compared to similar demographics at a regular school, cats at places like Success Academy are going to go to college at higher rates and will most likely be more successful even if their collab skills, problem-solving skills, etc. are not on par with the cats at the more affluent schools that don’t care about the state tests.  Right?

 

4) High needs schools vs. low needs schools….there are good teachers everywhere…we don’t need tests to measure teacher ability

While high needs schools I have worked at in California have had some amazing people working there, they also have teachers and admin that don’t help move things forward. The high needs schools in my experience are also the schools that tend to have more interns, long term subs, have the Teach for America teachers who have limited experience and may not even want to be teachers after their time is up in the program, etc.

Furthermore, these high needs schools have the teachers who have been rejected from better schools on the west side because they are too new or maybe for other reasons. They have the teachers that are sitting back on their union seniority and just looking to the next vacation and retirement. And then the worst situations are where they have places where they house teachers that they won’t fire, but still pay them, as outlined in the eye-opening movie called The Rubber Room or far worse, you see the “dance of the lemons” where they have teachers that are difficult to fire so they just send them to one high needs school after another. The whole time, as Waiting for Superman showed, the students are not making growth.

And when you aren’t making growth when others moving forward…you are falling behind.

This is an image Beckett Haight concocted that states "If you send kids to schools with uncertifed teachers, you won't get better results
That’s the truth….

But historically parents don’t know what’s going on with their kid’s schools a lot of times.  They just hope things will pan out.  But these days with No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top, and ESSA and all that stuff, we are starting to be able to have an idea of where schools are at.

 

5) They are just teaching to the test

Backwards planning and UbD are trending these days and they are all about developing your assessments and then figuring out how you are going to get the students there. I plan that way myself, and I see this as an established best practice. You create a test, or series of assessments….and then you teach to it.

This is to say that teaching to the test is not necessarily a bad thing.

We just have to make sure that it makes sense.

I much rather see a student in 10th grade World History learning everything that’s going to be on the test as opposed to every Monday hearing about the teachers and other students’ weekends, and in the middle of the next class hearing stories about recipes and trips relating to China.

Or the more innocuous…how about the history teacher that used to spend 2 months on the China unit because they loved China, but then had to rush through the last couple units because China is recommended to be a 3 to 4 week unit? Back in the day we would not know that was happening, but now with end of year testing, there is the chance that people may find out that the children may know a lot about ancient China, but not too much about the Romans, when they are supposed to know both equally as well. That’s not fair!

 

CONCLUSION

Standardized testing in this day and age has a lot of detractors.  A lot of the education thought leaders that I admire have a strong stance against this practice as well.  But I have seen far too many students get passed to the next grade without having the knowledge, understanding or skills needed to be as successful as possible in the next grade.

There is nothing wrong with adopting a set of standard approaches to what students in a country, or a state, or a district, or a content area in a school should learn.  It doesn’t make sense to me that Oklahoma for example can set lower limits or standards for their children’s education than Connecticut.  Does that make sense?

It’s all about equity.  While equity doesn’t alway mean equal, it does mean that all students should have the same access to the same essential outcomes.  If we can’t ensure that….we are doing something wrong.

 

 

Check out the ‘Waiting for Superman’ trailer.  The pathos is real:

 


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