Kids are overtested at the expense of teaching and learning

The need to “raise standards” and insist on “high expectations” for all schools and students is clear and obvious. But unfortunately, in practice, these fine ideas are often reduced to crude slogans: “Test scores are too low. Make them go up.” As Alfie Kohn said in his Boston Globe column: Poor Teaching for Poor Students, “the implications are ominous for all students because standardized tests tend to measure the temporary acquisition of facts and skills, including the skill of test-taking itself, rather than meaningful understanding.”

Today’s crisis in Idaho education has been caused by an amalgamation of high stakes testing, accountability, markets and privatization tied to the Common Core. I generally support the standards, which are designed to ensure that when Idaho students graduate from high school, they will be competitive at the state and national levels and be able to create the futures of their choice. But in Idaho, there appears to be some gaps in some of the goals from grade to grade. And we are over-testing our children at the expense of best practices for teaching and learning. These problems are exascerbated by the new eight-hour Common Core test: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

“Our students are the most over-tested in the world,” writes education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch. “No other nation—at least no high-performing nation—judges the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. Most researchers agree that this methodology is fundamentally flawed, that it is inaccurate, unreliable, and unstable, that the highest ratings will go to teachers with the most affluent students and the lowest ratings will go to teachers of English learners, teachers of students with disabilities, and teachers in high-poverty schools.”

It is a bad idea to tie test numbers to teacher pay. To raise scores on a standardized test, when those numbers determine whether a student will receive a diploma and how much teachers will earn, is fundamentally destructive to schools and communities.  Educators often feel compelled to put test preparation ahead of richer forms of teaching.  In years of research that I conducted with my mother, Dorothy Strickland of Rutgers University, we found that this more likely to happen in schools with higher percentages of minority students. Skills-based instruction, the type to which most children of color are subjected, tends to foster low-level uniformity and subvert academic potential. This has stark implications for Idaho’s large and rapidly growing Hispanic population.

In November of 2013, I wrote about the fact that Hispanic enrollment growth is outpacing non-Hispanic growth in Idaho’s public schools, colleges and universities. From 2000 to 2011, there was a 75 percent increase in enrollment of Hispanic students in K-12 schools, compared to an increase of 8 percent in non-Hispanic student enrollment. Hispanic student enrollment in four-year universities increased 118 percent, while non-Hispanic student enrollment increased 9 percent. Hispanic students make up 16 percent of K-12 public school enrollment .

Hispanic parents of 10th-graders are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic parents to say they wish they had more time to be involved in their child’s education — 48 percent of Hispanic parents versus 19 percent of non-Hispanic parents. However, Hispanic parents are much more likely than non-Hispanic parents to say they lack the knowledge to help with math and science homework — 51 percent versus 26 percent for math, and 44 percent versus 13 percent for science.

Idaho educators should make use of multiple measures of assessment for important educational decisions and recommendations. These can include formative assessments: Assessment for learning, not assessment of learning. Interviews, visits, observations, peer-reviews, self-evaluations — as well as end of course evaluations tied to the actual courses — are examples of alternatives to the high stakes model that sets up schools and students to be labelled as failures.

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