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Too Much Standardized Testing

Published in ChicagoNow, October 23, 2013

In a letter to President Obama dated October 22, 2013, top children’s authors and illustrators including Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, Sandra Boynton, Jules Feiffer, Judith Viorst, Rosemary Wells, and more than 120 others urge the President to curb standardized testing. They fear that teaching to standardized tests erodes a child’s love of reading and literature. The letter states in part:

“We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration…We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.”

I just discovered today (October 23, 2013) that my community’s second grade curriculum does not include fiction, only non-fiction. At first I was puzzled but the cynic in me drew a connection between this odd choice and the fact that third grade is when high stakes tests are given. Those reading tests focus on comprehension of … non-fiction passages. I may be wrong, but why else keep fiction out of the hands of children who love it so much?

But maybe these standardized tests are important as a way of making schools and teacher accountable? That is hard to believe when front-page headline in the September 16, 2013 Chicago Tribune read: How Illinois rule change allows struggling schools to make the grade. The gist of the article was that math whizzes had to create new ways to calculate which schools were failures. Now, schools could get “extra credit” for improvement of test scores, even when not coming close to meeting federal standards of 92.5% of the children scoring average or above. It’s no wonder our schools needed a new way to calculate success. Since the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, the percent of children who need to pass for a school to be rated “successful” has risen each year. In 2014, 100% of all kids from all backgrounds in all neighborhoods with all learning challenges speaking all languages are supposed to pass for a school to avoid the sanctions imposed on failing schools. And, to make it even more special, the tests are getting harder!

Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, cited in the Tribune article, compares these calculations are to a game in which mathletes are challenged to come up a formula that makes a supposedly failing school successful. This “fuzzy math” (Thank you for that phrase, George W. Bush) just serves to “avoid dealing with real school issues.”

Diane Ravitch, author of the newly released book Reign of Error, was also cited in the Tribune article. Ms. Ravitch, once part of the educational-industrial complex in the Bush II administration and an initial supporter of NCLB, has come to view testing and test-based accountability as extremely harmful to public education. One year out from the impossible goal of 100% proficiency on standardized tests, Ravitch laments that:

  • Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on testing and on test preparation materials.

  • In many school districts, 20 percent of the school year is devoted to preparing for tests.

  • Some states have been started testing children in the early grades and in prekindergarten to prepare them for third grade testing.

  • The curriculum has narrowed because only reading and math are tested, with much less time spent on the arts, history, civics, physical education, science, and foreign language.

  • Cheating scandals have erupted all over the country, with states manipulating the passing score on state tests to inflate their results.

  • Teaching to the test, once considered unprofessional and unethical, is now common practice.

  • A huge amount of money that could have been spent in classrooms for children has instead been spent on consultants and to create methods of data based assessment.

For over 35 years, I have followed test scores for my community’s elementary schools and the noted the consequences for schools with poor scores. These reports were always accompanied by demands that more had to be done to "close the gap" between children from different backgrounds. After watching this for so many years, I am now certain that test-driven education will do little to change anything and, in fact, will do more harm than good.

When the success of children, teachers and schools are reduced to “measurable data,” teachers feel tremendous pressure to teach to the tests so the scores will improve rather than to teach to meet the needs of their students. Kindergarten teachers, in particular, are under a lot of pressure. They are expected to produce readers by drilling children to acquire the skills they need to decode the written word, regardless of whether children are developmentally ready to learn this at age five. After all, there are standards to be met and tests to be taken.

David Elkind (professor of child development at Tufts University; former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children; author of The Hurried Child and many other wonderful books on child development) cites educational research that supports a more developmentally appropriate approach to educating young children (birth-age 8). It is only when children have attained what Piaget calls concrete operations (usually age 6-7) that they can construct the concepts that enable them to read or do math with true understanding. Children who are able to do so earlier have reached this developmental stage ahead of schedule, much like children who walk at 9 months versus children who walk at 18 months. Although you can drill the typical three year old to memorize the alphabet and rote count to 20, this child doesn't really learn to read or do math problems any sooner or better than children whose formal instruction began at a much later age. Most early academic instruction ignores the fact that reading and math are complex skills that children learn in stages when their brains are developmentally ready.

If you are still with me and are fed up with the educational-industrial complex that has replaced superintendents with school CEOs and child development experts with politicians, what can you do? Parents of current and future elementary school students are caught in a difficult position. The system tells them that good test scores are the key that opens the door to success for their children. Is there anything to be done other than go along with the system?

Here’s some advice from a retired teacher and administrator (me) who has been around long enough to see many trends come and go:

  • Read and study all you can about how children learn best and try to advocate for developmentally appropriate practices in your child's schools. Since the teachers are even more trapped than you (their livelihood depends on carrying out the system's mission), it is up to you to make your voice heard. Becoming more knowledgeable about best practice is a good place to start.

  • Don’t be seduced by the current test-driven mania that has taken over public education. Remember that, as Elkind tells us, universal standards and early academic instruction fail to appreciate that "children's intellectual abilities mature at different rates and that chronological age is not a good measure of cognitive ability."

  • Trust your instincts about what your child needs.

  • Remember that parents are still their children’s first and best teachers.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. --Albert Einstein


by Laurie Levy
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