Americans have a peculiar fascination with numbers. The most popular news stories are the ones which lend themselves to numbers, like sports, business and the weather. We love to quantify and measure everything. Readers love top 10 lists; businessmen are fascinated by quarterly earnings reports. In all our measurements, we conclude that if the numbers are getting bigger we must be making progress. This fixation has become apparent in the field of education – where standardized test scores are used to measure academic achievement. The majority of education research today focuses on “how do we ‘improve’ education?” But all “improve” means is “raise test scores”. Since test scores are a concrete measurement, so it’s easy to write about scores going up or down. The quality of education is not as easy to measure – it’s not so easy to explain how much the kids are interested in what they are learning, or if they’ve explored and understood the concepts taught in their classes. The article, “The Important Things Standardized Tests don’t Measure”, discusses this issue in more detail.
I believe we aren’t able to find the answers to “improving” our education system because we aren’t asking the right question. “How do we assess (kids, teachers, and schools)?” has become, “How do we measure…?” We’ve forgotten that that assessment doesn’t require measurement – and really, the most valuable forms of assessment are qualitative (a narrative account of a child’s progress by an observant teacher who knows the child well) rather than quantitative (a standardized test score). In Oregon, we have missed the mark completely. Plenty of parents and educators disliked OAKS (the standardized test administered to students for several years), but instead of finding an alternative way to assess our students and schools, the solution was to adopt a better test called Smarter Balanced. The thing is, Smarter Balanced isn’t a better test. This article by educator Steven Rasmussen explains: “Why the Smarter Balanced Common Core Math Test is Fatally Flawed”.
An even bigger problem is that Smarter Balanced test is designed to make kids fail. The cut scores are set so that approximately 60% of all students will fail the Language Arts test, and 65% will fail the math test. You can read the report here: Smarter Balanced States Approve Achievement Level Recommendations. It is unconscionable to me that educators are administering a test that nearly 2/3 of their students are going to fail. You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that this kind of overwhelming failure is going to slash the morale of both students and teachers. Moreover, the tests themselves don’t give any useful feedback as to what students or teachers could do to improve. In his blog post, “What Do Kids Really Learn from Failure?”, educator and author Alfie Kohn explains, “studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing)”. I just can’t see how it makes any sense to subject our kids to this high risk of failure.
Even worse is the fact that this statistic is not being used to show how absurd the whole standardized testing movement has become – it’s being used as a “wake up call” that we need to promote higher standards and more demanding instruction. According to the Oregonian article, “60 Percent of Oregon Students Won’t Pass New Reading, Math Tests”, “[Oregon schools chief Rob Saxton] is thinking about the many parents who will be told for the first time next year that their high school-aged child is not on track to succeed in college. ‘I am prepared to answer that parent and tell them … you better get them enrolled in a math class or a writing class their senior year’”. Basically, lets subject our kids to a test that’s designed to make the majority of them fail and then when they discover that they’re a failure we’ll make them give up something fun (elective courses) and take more classes in the subjects that they just failed. That doesn’t seem very motivating.
Fortunately, in Oregon there is a growing movement of parents who are standing up to the state and saying, “Smarter Balanced is not what we want for our kids”. Here is an article in the Oregonian that explains: “Movement to opt out of Common Core testing gains steam, especially in Portland.” I would encourage you to check it out and consider joining the movement yourself if you are a parent.
In researching this topic, I have come across several helpful resources. I would encourage you to do your own research, but here are some of the sources I found that were particularly interesting:
Kohn, Alfie. The Case Against Standardized Testing. Portsmouth: Heineman, 2000. Print. <http://www.alfiekohn.org/case-standardized-testing>
Alfie Khon is a speaker and author who has written more than a dozen books about topics in education. This book takes a clear, well researched, look at how standardized testing does not accurately measure how good our schools are, or even how much our kids are learning. In fact, he makes a compelling case against the entire tougher standards movement, and explains in detail how standardized testing undermines the best pedagogical practices. You can also visit the Alfie Khon website to read more of his blogs on various topics in education.
Popham, James. “Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality”. Educational Leadership. Volume 56, Issue 6 (1999): 8-15. Web.
This is an older article that I believe still applies today. It sadly reflects the fact that we have not made much progress in the last 15 years. Actually, since this article was written, Oregon has adopted new, higher, standards (Common Core) and new, harder, tests (Smarter Balanced). In order to turn the tide on this trend, parents and educators are going to have to start speaking up. There is simply too much momentum in the higher standards movement to be able to change course without a direct, concerted effort.
Wheatley, Karl. “Factors that Perpetuate Test-Driven, Factory-Style Schooling: Implications for Policy and Practice” International Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Educational Research Volume 10, Issue 2 (2015): 1-17. Web. <http://ijlter.org/index.php/ijlter/article/view/261/pdf>
This is a great paper that explains several factors that make it hard to enact real change in our education system. Some have argued that the current tougher standards movement was born out of good intentions of educators who want to see our children be able to compete in a global marketplace. However, there is mounting evidence that what we are doing isn’t working well. Misleading research, failure to understand motivation, profit driven motives, and ignorance of (or unwillingness to accept) alternatives are just a few things that are hindering change, and are keeping America stuck in a test-driven model of schooling.
How to Get Involved
There are a number of ways that you can get involved. Remember that quality is better than quantity here. I would encourage you to use your interests and passions to find a place to engage in your community or a local school. Even if you’re not a parent, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved.
- In the classroom
- PTO or other parent organization
- In the school library
- Music boosters
- Sports, clubs or activities
Discuss your concerns with:
- Your child’s teacher
- Your school’s principal
- The school board
One of the best things you can do as a parent is to opt your kids out of the Smarter Balanced tests. This will not only relieve your child from the stress of taking the test – but it will send a message to your school, your community, and your state – there are parents who care about education, and standardized testing is not what we want for our kids.
- Visit Opt-Out Oregon for more information.
- If you are an educator, find out your legal rights about opting out from the Oregon Educator’s Association.
Write a letter to:
- Your school principal.
- Your local school board.
- State Legislators and other public officials.
- The editor (or an op-ed) in your local newspaper. Here is here is how to write a letter to the editor, how to submit your letter to the Oregonian, and some examples.