Virginians have been told that the only way to improve our schools is to measure success using standardized tests, called SOLs. This seemed to be simple common sense. If the teacher teaches, the kids learn, and the test scores will be fine. If scores are bad, then bad consequences will follow. For kids, bad consequences can be getting left back, being placed in a low-track, or not graduating high-school. Principals and teachers can be fired if the students under their care do poorly. To avoid the bad consequences, everyone will work harder to improve learning.
If only it was this simple.
Richmond Teachers for Social Justice opposes the current uses of standardized tests in our schools. We believe that the emphasis on testing hurts the people it is supposed to help. Testing costs too much, narrows curricula and undermines good education by encouraging students and educators to game the system rather than focus on learning.
The Co$t of Testing
Testing has many costs. Some are obvious, some are more hidden.
Testing is costing our schools a lot of money, both in cash and in the hours that it takes people to do the work associated with testing. Virginia districts pay a lot of money to private corporations for the SOL exams, and for supplemental materials that are designed to boost scores, but aren’t very useful for teachers. The cost can also be measured in the hours spent by teachers, by central office people, and by administrators as they create, grade, report on, and discuss test scores. This is time that could be spent on figuring out how to make learning more interesting for our children.
The most troubling cost is felt by our children who lose up to a third of the school year to testing. Teachers must stop teaching for weeks at a time to review what has already been taught, and to administer standardized benchmark tests every 9 weeks! In many districts teachers stop teaching new material and focus entirely on SOL test preparation by early April. The SOLs are given in May, so little gets accomplished in June. That’s 3 months of potential learning that students lose in the spring alone.
What gets tested gets taught. This sounds sensible, but lots of things that we care about don’t get tested. Things like art, music, creative writing, history, physical education and science are not tested every year. When they aren’t tested, teachers are told to ignore them because they take time away from what is tested. Tests affect the kinds of materials that kids are exposed to. They read boring passages, like the ones that appear on the SOL, rather than good literature. They spend little time doing science, because they must spend too much time learning science facts. Teachers and kids lose out when they aren’t exposed to interesting curricula.
Gaming the System
We have been told that it is common sense that if you make a test really count, people will work harder to do well. It is also common sense that if you make one measure the most important thing in peoples’ lives, they will do what they have to do to get good scores. In some cases that means gaming the system.
For example, gaming can be spending a lot of time teaching the kids how to do well on a English Language Arts SOL, rather than really teaching them how to read. In some cases around the country, such as in Atlanta and Washington DC, students and even educators have been caught cheating. Kids cheat because they don’t want to get left back. Some grown-ups cheat because they don’t want to lose their jobs.
Gaming the system and cheating creates the illusion of improvement. Many adults are happy with this illusion. It makes politicians look like they are doing a good job fixing education. That illusion disappears when our young people enter college or work without the skills they need to be successful. They haven’t actually learned much other than how to game a test.
Hurting the People it is Supposed to Help
Testing was supposed to force teachers to work harder, and pay closer attention to our children, especially the children who have long been ignored: those who are poor and of color. Unfortunately, this is not what has happened in practice. Testing has not kept more kids in school. It has encouraged many to drop out because they feel that they have no chance of being successful. Worse, it has led some schools to push kids out by encouraging them to get GEDs, by classifying them as special education, and by taking them out of SOL classes and putting them in classes where they don’t even have the chance to take the test. Why? Because by keeping some kids from taking tests, the pass rate for the school will improve. All of these immoral moves are necessary because scores on a test at the end of the year count more than anything else.
Learning is hard: it takes time, it takes practice and it isn’t always fun. Time is something that teachers have less of now because of testing. Time that could be spent on interesting projects is lost because every 9 weeks everything stops for three weeks in order to review and give the benchmark tests. Benchmark tests are created by the school district. They are supposed to help teachers see which students are not doing well and what they haven’t learned. The idea is that they will spend time re-teaching what hasn’t been learned. BUT, they have another benchmark test on new material in 9 more weeks, so they don’t have time to re-teach anything. They have to move forward.
What to do about High-Stakes Testing
Speak up about Testing
One of the most important actions we can take is to speak up about this critical issue. For too long students, parents, teachers, administrators and politicians have remained silent as high-stakes testing has come to dominate and corrupt our public system of education. Stories need to be told and arguments need to be made that illustrate the damaging effects of these policies. Speaking out means discussing the situation with people you know at every possible opportunity. It also means writing letters to elected officials and school administrators as well as speaking up at PTA meetings and local school board meetings.
Organize against Testing
Another step we can all take is to join or form organizations that resist high-stakes tests. Richmond Teachers for Social Justice is one, but there are other local, state-level, and national-level groups that have been fighting this battle. These groups can organize public forums, sponsor rallies and direct action, disseminate critical information, and build alliances that can ultimately affect public opinion and policy. One excellent resource for learning more about the movement against high-stakes tests is FAIR TEST. Check out their website: http://fairtest.org/
Learn more about the OPT OUT movement
If you are a parent or a student, you might want to learn more about the growing opt out movement. Opting out is about asking the question, “what happens if a student doesn’t take the test?” Some states have a clause that allows parents to exempt their children from testing just by notifying the authorities. Across the country there are groups forming that are helping get information out about the rules and regulations in each state and school division. You can learn more about the national and local opt out movement at http://optoutofstandardizedtests.wikispaces.com/