Standardized Testing

      A Failure

     I returned to school this August with bated breath: How did I do on the California Standards Test (CST)?
     Of course, I hadn't taken the test myself. My students had. But, in the era of Evaluate Teachers Using Standardized Test Scores Because Lazy/Incompetent Teachers Are- The Problem In Public Education, I couldn't help but take my student's scores personally-a reflection of my success or failure as a teacher.
      Well, I failed. Maybe.
     On the one hand, I noted with chagrin that, while the 4th Grade at Kitayama Elementary did pretty well last year--with 72% of our students proficient or advanced in Language Arts (12 points above the state average) and 78% proficient or advance in math (18 points above), I (my students) garnered 61% and 73% respectively---still above the state average, but below my colleagues' scores.
      I was the 4th grade's weak link last year. I guess I ought to hang my head in shame, cower in my classroom.
      On the other hand, my scores the previous year exceeded both the state's and Kitayama's 4th grade average--which was ironic since it was my first year teaching 4th grade. Go figure!
      Perhaps all can be explained by the fact that two-thirds of my students last year were Title 1 (poor, low-performing), more than in any other class.
      And yet, one of my colleagues had a preponderance of English-Language-Learners in his class, and they did fine on the CST. So, really, I have no excuse.
      U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would like to publish my CST scores so parents could choose the best teacher for their children.
      Eeeks! Would parents remember that I have a masters degree, 27 years of experience? That I was once a mentor teacher, a teacher trainer, a teacher of the year?
Probably not. Parents of the best students would see my abysmal CST scores from last year and insist the principal place their children anywhere but with me--thus ensuring that my scores would drop even more this year. What a disaster that would be!
      I can take comfort in the fact that there's a movement to use, not raw test scores to evaluate teachers, but value-added scores: By how much did my students improve?
      Well, 21 of my 33 kids improved in Language Arts, and 18 in math, some by two categories; rising, for example, from Below Basic to Proficient, and from Basic to Advanced in just one year! Only 1 of my students went down in Language Arts, and just 3 in math. Not too shabby! (How can any child's skills get worse?)
     Educators in the know, however, understand that the 3rd grade CST is much more demanding than the 2nd or 4th grade tests. So, despite their best efforts, most 3rd grade teachers see kids' scores decline, while their 4th grade counterparts enjoy the opposite.
     Do my students' improved scores mean anything at all? And, if Duncan succeeds in publishing teachers' CST scores, would anyone at all dare to teach 3rd grade? Or Title 1 students?
    I lamented my CST failure to my friend and principal, who replied with a wry smile, "You know, Dave, it's not all about you." (Damn! She knows me too well.) "There are so many factors that influence test scores, a myriad of uncontrolled variables. The best thing you can do is to let go of your ego, and to utilize the test like we used to: Investigate which sections your students found the most difficult on the exam, compare those results to other measures of their skills, then adjust your instruction accordingly.
     "And remember," my principal added, "your primary job is not to raise test scores, but to prepare children to live a great life by instilling in them essential skills and knowledge, a love of reading and learning, self confidence, critical thinking, and joy. That's what really matters."
     Tell that to Arnie Duncan.

Published September 12th, 2010, in The Argus (Bay Area News Group)    


“How is it that our high school students can earn more credits, get higher GPSs, but yet not perform any better?” mused a dumbfounded David Gordon, Sacramento County Superintendent and member of the Board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). (Reported in The Argus Friday, February 23rd.)

The NAEP, often termed the “Nation’s Report Card” because it is the only test given to a sampling of students from every state, revealed that just one-fourth of high school seniors tested in 2005 ranked competent in math, and barely one-third read at grade level. This was a substantial decline since 1990—despite rising individual state test scores, despite more students spending longer hours at school, despite the kids taking tougher classes with higher grades than ever.

How is this possible?

Well, not only is it possible, it was predicted by Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond. Her research—studiously ignored by President Bush and the Department of Education—has repeatedly demonstrated that, prior to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), every single state that adopted high stakes testing as a means of education reform experienced a decline in actual student achievement as measured on the NAEP. So, given that the President and Congress mandated the same sort of testing as national policy, it really is no surprise that we now see the same depressing result throughout the country.

Why? Because, for one, teachers (those who don’t quit in disgust) narrow their instruction to focus almost exclusively on state standardized test items. They reluctantly but increasingly eschew higher-ordered thinking since it can’t be readily measured on the fill-in-the-bubble exams. They cut projects, discussion, cooperative activities, simulations, field trips, music, art…and, instead, drill basic skills ad nauseam. “Kids will tell you in America,” lamented Darvin Winick, Chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, “that they are bored and that they see no connection between what they are learning and what they need in their future.”

Ah, but you see, it’s no longer about what kids need! With high stakes testing, education gets turned on its head as individual student success ceases to be the goal, and children themselves become a means to a new end: increasing a school’s published ranking. For example, educators now often neglect students at the bottom. (Thank goodness they don’t have to accurately count drop-outs, since those students would have lowered test scores, anyway!) No, teachers, practicing a sort of educational triage, devote scarce resources instead to the kids in the lower-middle who, with minimal effort, can be made proficient, and so raise a school’s ranking.

Also, with the NCLB one-size-fits-all, everyone-is-going-to-a-prestigious-college approach (in spite of the fact that less than thirty percent of Americans ever earn any college degree), schools force more and more students into tougher and tougher college-prep classes—whether or not the kids are prepared intellectually or academically for such a rigorous curriculum. Here in California, for example, we’ve decided that all students must take Algebra in 8th grade. Since teachers cannot fail large numbers of students without incurring administrators’ and parents’ wrath, they have to lower the bar and pass hapless, struggling kids along.

All in the name of higher standards, of course!

There is another way. Linda Darling-Hammond’s research also highlighted the one reform leading to impressive gains on the NAEP: Investing in teacher recruitment, training, and support. Apparently, there is simply no substitute for getting better teachers into classrooms. (Duh!)

Nonetheless, in a response eerily similar to Bush’s troop-surge strategy for the Iraq quagmire, many lawmakers suggest the best solution for the current low NAEP test scores is even more, harder exams. “Standards are not high enough on state tests,” argues Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez.

We Americans are nothing if not stubborn. And stupid, insisting we can solve any and all problems, no matter what the cause or complexity, with merely a bigger hammer. And then, after smashing our fingers yet again, we blink with bewildered surprise.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Rest Easy

I just wanted to reassure everyone that, during these tense weeks of testing in schools (SAT 9), everything is OK.

For instance, obedient to State Department of Education requirements, I have removed the large map in the back of my classroom, and covered up with sheets anything else on the walls that might give my students some sort of advantage on the exam. Every one of my colleagues and I sat through a video admonishing us against adding or deleting a single word from the instructions we’ll read our students. Also, we’ve signed affidavits pledging we will not copy or even discuss any part of the test. Just in case, though, administrators keep it under lock and key until just moments before testing begins each day; and they collect it and all peripheral materials again immediately afterwards. I’ll turn in every scrap of scratch paper my students use as well, so it can be sent off to SAT 9 Headquarters for analysis and evaluation.

Even Heaven can’t help the teacher or school less scrupulous with these meticulous precautions. In fact, one, small misstep could result in the invalidation of the entire district’s scores.

I know all this will come as a relief to you. Given the tremendous disparities between and among California’s schools, you might worry that some students could have an unfair advantage over others during testing.

Indeed, last May the ACLU sued the State Department of Education for providing so many children--who just happen to be predominately poor and minority--an awful education. The ACLU cited inner-city schools, for example, where dead rats slowly decompose in the corners of gymnasiums; and where those rats’ living brethren brazenly wander the halls during school hours; where bathrooms, if they work at all (Don’t even ask about the water fountains.), reek of urine and worse; where technology is non-existent, and teachers lack even a single class-set of textbooks.

Of course, those teachers represent the most pathetic and glaring form of educational injustice. Recent research has revealed teachers to be the single most important factor in determining a student’s success or failure. In fact, teacher quality is more important than even class size and a child’s socioeconomic status.

Nonetheless, California’s best teachers only rarely staff those dilapidated, inner-city schools. No, a disproportionate number of teachers there possess only emergency credentials. Worse, at some schools the annual teacher-turnover rate exceeds sixty percent--with, of course, dire implications for the education of their students.

It is understandable, then, with the obvious disinterest the State of California has displayed in acknowledging, much less addressing the outrageous disparities in the learning environments of its children, you might worry the same could be true with their testing environments. As I noted above, however, education officials are apparently obsessed with ensuring all students are tested the same.

This is crucial, you know, since accurate SAT 9 test results will reveal how--surprise, surprise--at too many inner-city schools, children learn virtually nothing. Thus, it’ll be easier than ever to ridicule such children, belittle their teachers, despair in public education, and argue for vouchers.

So, never fear: The Department of Education is doing everything in its power to make sure that, at least during testing, all schools are equal. We can all rest easy. I know I will.

Kids No Longer Matter

My students will slog their way through standardized, fill-in-the-bubble tests this week: the new CAT 6 (replacing the SAT 9) and the increasingly important California Standards Test (CST). The former, a norm-referenced exam, evaluates students relative to their peers statewide. No matter how well kids do or how much they improve, nearly half must earn a derided score of “below average.” The latter exam measures, instead, student mastery of fixed state content standards. Are the kids learning what they’re supposed to?

At least, that’s what we say these exams determine. Their real purpose is to evaluate schools, not kids.

This became obvious to me three years ago. We at my school scrutinized the previous year’s test scores, highlighted those areas where our school had performed poorly, and then zeroed in on the few that had the highest number of questions on the exams. We hoped, by improving student achievement in those targeted areas, we’d reap an easy but dramatic increase in the school’s overall API (Academic Performance Index), which The Argus publishes with much fanfare. Pretty clever, huh?

In an era of “High Stakes Testing,” an awful lot rides on that API score—everything from crowing rights and monetary rewards for both schools and teachers, to public humiliation and state-takeovers. (We choose to ignore the close correlation between a school’s API and the socio-economics of its students.) Although my school’s average score has risen over the last three years, one of its racial sub-group’s score has not (white kids one year). So, despite our success, our reputation and independence are still on the line.

Notice that, amid all this hoopla, we don’t focus our efforts on a particular skill or knowledge because it is intrinsically important. Nor do we ask what an individual student lacks in order to improve or be successful in life. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the same year my colleagues and I focused so intently on our API, we never reviewed our students’ personal test scores so we could discuss them during parent teacher conferences, or plan individualized instruction. No, only the API mattered—then, and now. That score has become the purpose or “end” of the exams. Students have become merely a means of achieving it.

Consider the frightening implications. The Argus covered last fall the embarrassing number of local kids who are out-of-shape, even obese. Who cares, since neither the CAT 6 nor the CST measures such triviality? Similarly, The Argus reported on April 24th how local high school graduation rates fail to reveal the real number of dropouts. How convenient, since those kids would only have brought down schools’ API anyway!

You see, kids no longer matter.

Nor does good teaching, it would seem. This year, for instance, 8th graders will take the CST History exam for the first time. The trouble is, it will measure their mastery of all the absurdly broad history standards, not just the ones teachers have covered so far this year. Thus, 8th grade history teachers face a dilemma: They can frantically rush through the remaining standards before the exam, or teach at least a few of them well during the six weeks remaining afterwards. In other words, teachers must choose between appearing to help children, or actually doing so.

As high-stakes standardized testing becomes the centerpiece of education here in California, educators will face this dilemma more and more.

Test Scores, Perception, and Reality

I'd like to offer a few words of encouragement to the Fremont parents who failed to get their children into the prestigious Mission attendance area schools; and to the educators who doggedly staff the supposedly inferior ones elsewhere: As the famous automobile commercial states, “Perception is not always reality.”

At first glance, recently published standardized test scores seem to confirm the pervading perception. The average performance of Mission area students on the SAT 9 exam not only far exceeded those of kids elsewhere in the district, but shamed schools throughout the Tri-Cities, and even most of California.

Wow! No wonder so many people waited hours in line in a futile attempt to get their kids enrolled in Mission schools. No wonder the wealthy have invested more than a half-million dollars a piece in homes near them.

Nonetheless, had these parents considered things more carefully, they could have saved both their time and their money.

You see, while standardized tests might measure an extremely narrow band of an individual student's basic skills, they in no way indicate the quality of a particular school. On the contrary, they usually reveal only the school's admission standards: which kids it welcomes through its front door.

Private schools, for example, enjoy artificially high test averages since, by means of an entrance exam and exorbitant tuition, they screen out most students with low scores.

The same has become the case for Mission where for decades the City Council permitted the construction of exclusively affluent housing. As a result, Mission's schools have become essentially elitist, for the rich and well-educated. It's an embarrassment which, more than anything else, accounts for Mission's impressive test results.

Tell me, does anyone honestly believe that, if we suddenly switched the faculties at Mission San Jose and Irvington High Schools, the schools' respective tests scores would be likewise reversed? Would you believe me if, when my school's scores jump dramatically over the next few years, I claimed the improvement had nothing to do with the expensive new track homes going up in the neighborhood? Please, shoot me if I do.

No, to use standardized tests to judge any school, we'd have to look, not at raw scores, but at their average improvement over several years. What does each school accomplish with its particular students, no matter what skills they possess when they first arrive?

Measuring student improvement would level the playing field among schools. If we did, I suspect we'd discover that most kids in apparently second-rate schools are actually receiving a fine education, that their test scores, while still low in absolute terms, are improving dramatically over time, perhaps at an even faster rate than those in more venerated schools crowing about their “remarkable” achievement.

I pray that, one day soon, test scores will be interpreted in such a way as to give such dedicated teachers and their beloved students due recognition.

In the meantime, I urge everyone to remember that “still waters run deep.” The best education may be found outside Mission, where humble schools quietly work their daily miracles.