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December 2015 Vol. 23. No. 3 Focus on Standardized Tests

In our opinion

End of a nightmare?

By the Notebook on Nov 25, 2015 01:01 PM

High-stakes standardized tests are falling out of favor. From President Obama and Congress to School District leaders, we are finally hearing recognition of the unintended consequences of over-testing and overemphasizing test results.

Philadelphia schools have lived through 20 years of test-based accountability. At first, it involved rewards and some punishments for schools based on standardized test scores.
Over time, the stakes for schools, staff, and students were steadily raised. Punishments for low-scoring schools have included curtailing autonomy in decision-making and imposing a highly regimented, dumbed-down, remedial curriculum. Lately, the threat has been charter conversion or outright closing.

Some key architects of test-based accountability – from former Superintendent David Hornbeck in Philadelphia to Sen. Ted Kennedy in Congress – saw it as a way to enforce higher learning standards in schools that chronically underserved their students. Test-based rewards and sanctions were supposed to force schools once and for all to address deep-seated race and class inequities. Measuring the disparities and racial gaps in outcomes would go hand-in-hand with providing equal inputs.

But resources were seldom delivered where they were needed. Instead, schools were labeled as “failing” wherever teachers, parents, and students couldn’t achieve at high levels.

Schools trying to avert shutdown or charter conversion narrowed the curriculum to tested subjects, primarily reading and math. Writing, art and music, science and social studies all became endangered. Frenzied test prep squeezed out intellectually worthy activities. Pep rallies to hype test performance became normal and accepted. So did both subtle and blatant adult cheating on tests.

The pressure to raise test scores wasn’t limited to underfunded city schools. And the pushback grew – including a national movement to opt out of standardized tests.

Pressed by families refusing to cooperate, embarrassed by cheating scandals, and lacking evidence that high-stakes accountability is working, education leaders have started to rethink the approach. Obama – who like many top officials sends his children to private schools that downplay testing – has acknowledged the overkill. Congress appears poised to roll back the No Child Left Behind rules mandating interventions in low-scoring schools – though not the annual testing requirement.

A new School District committee set up to examine assessment practices here must digest the collateral damage from high-stakes testing and create a very different assessment and accountability system – one that focuses on diagnosing problems and providing supports, rather than declaring schools and students failures.

The PSSA and Keystone exams may not go away, but they still aren’t the best vehicle to ensure individual student needs are met. We do need assessments to make sure that students are learning to read and do math in the early grades. But we also need a system that doesn’t devalue other vital areas – from writing to social and emotional skills.

The District committee should look to its own schools for ideas about project-based and other alternative, authentic assessments to help build skills that students will actually need in their lives. It should also look outside – to find assessment strategies that will have real meaning for students.

In short, it’s time to rethink our testing system from top to bottom.

Comments (11)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 25, 2015 12:02 pm

Too little, too late. Teaching as a profession has already been killed by the standardized testing nightmare. The vets are retiring, the newbies are quitting after a year, the college kids are no longer interested in classroom careers. Good going, Washington, Harrisburg and Philly. You guys own this one.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 25, 2015 3:10 pm

I agree with the first commenter. There may have been at first some legitimate people who thought that standardized testing could improve our services to children. Even Diane Ravitch was an originator of NCLB as the former assistant Secretary of Education. 

However, after Ms. Ravitch saw what NCLB had begotten, she realized it was a mistake. She had the courage and dignity as a great educational leader and educational historian, to change her mind. Her two books stand as the most credible research on the "test-punish-privatize" political agenda, and she stands as the most credible authority on what has transpired in the American schoolhouse since NCLB.

There are legitimate uses of standardized testing, but their misuses have in deed been a nightmare for students, parents, teachers and administrators for more than a decade now.

It is time for all good people, parents, educators, elected representatives and especially Mayor Elect Kenney and Governor Wolf have to stand and say "enough is enough" of this lunacy -- it is hurting our children and our community.

It is time for them and us, and everyone who really cares about children -- to turn a new page in our history. That is our "moral imperative" as school leaders. 

Submitted by Nasdaq (not verified) on November 28, 2015 3:29 pm

Anybody who read "NY Times, Student Debt in America:Lend with Smile, Collect with a Fist", about a Missouri teacher who is $410,000 in debt with student loans, would probably not want to go into teaching.   Our government isn't "accountable"  for judging the credit worthiness of its student borrowers.  But it will still come after student debtors who can't pay back their loans in ways that would scare Tony Soprano. 

Submitted by Nasdaq (not verified) on November 28, 2015 3:48 pm

Dropoutnation dotnet has a different spin on the end of testing that must be going through a lot of peoples' minds.  (Google "Retreat from Building Better Futures").  The end of "No Child Left Behind" and the beginning of "Every Student Achieves Act" satisfies states who no longer have to devise methods to measure student progress and who can now get federal money with no strings attached.  It also satisfies unions who don't want any accountability at all.  Accountability can now include such factors as "school climate", whatever that means.

The testing nightmare is ending--and the unfunded pension nightmare is exploding.   CalPERS, the nation's benchmark public pension fund, admitted that it can't achieve 7.75% returns.   Goldman Sachs predicted flat equity returns in 2016 (or in other words a bear market).  Hedge funds have been lying about their investment gains to the pension funds that invest in them and pay huge fees for the privilege.  Anybody who follows the business news knows that the market is either going to crash or  will give very low yields for years if not decades.   Teachers and parents who don't care about any of this should start to care because it means taxpayer money will be used to keep pension funds from going broke, instead of being spent in the classroom.


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