Death by Testing

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Students in the United States are experiencing a slow death ... by testing.  It is a tragic demise of their intellect, curiosity, creativity, and interest that has, as its root cause, an obsession with standardized tests.  The last two weeks I've spent observing students, teachers, and administrators all focused on one thing: getting the right answer.  The two schools I've visited are labeled "underperforming" which means the pressure is on, and everyone feels it.

Following the passage of NCLB on Jan. 8, 2002, annual state spending on standardized tests rose from $423 million to almost $1.1 billion in 2008 (a 160% increase compared to a 19.22% increase in inflation over the same period), according to the Pew Center on the States.


In the state of Virginia, we have pacing guides for every grade level or subject which dictate the approximate amount of time teachers should spend on each educational objective.  These guides were designed in order to ensure that sufficient time is spent on each objective and that all the required objectives for the subject- or grade-level are taught in the school year.

Here's the problem:  because of the pressure to "perform" on the test (usually given mid-May), teachers all over the state (and all over many states in the U.S.) shorten those suggested pacing guides in order to be 'done' teaching by, ideally, the beginning of April.  Why? So they can implement their 45-Day Plan of remediation.  In other words, teach to the test.  This 45-day period is spent in data collection (i.e. students taking mock test after mock test), remediation (i.e. students being asked to give up their elective courses in order to go sit in classrooms and do worksheet after worksheet to practice their skills), and re-teaching (i.e. emphasis on the 'type of question you will see on the test' and 'here's what you need to do when you see problems like this').

I observed several of these data collection scenarios over the last few weeks.  They were painful.  I saw students sitting in front of computer screens, students sighing, teachers stressing, and students mostly guessing about answers to questions they could care less about.  Students employed strategies, if you could call them that, that were both sad and ineffectual:  take the highlight tool and highlight random words from the given problem, take the 'x' tool and eliminate answers (again, seemingly without thought or strategy or purpose), finally, just mark something as your answer then click "continue". 

The obsession over standardized testing and comparative assessments has gotten so out of hand, this headline was all over social media.

What's sad is that it wasn't from the Onion.  This is REAL!  A school really did cancel their kindergarten show in order to spend more time in "preparing children for college and career".

How did it get so bad?  In my opinion, education policy has fallen prey to a very common logical fallacy:  assuming correlation implies causation.  The No Child Left Behind legislation is filled with these invalid and unsound conclusions.

I am not the first educator to express concern over the path currently being taken by the education policy and reform efforts in the country.  Indeed, the others are legion.  Possibly one of the most well known is Diane Ravitch, author of "The Reign of Error".  There are others, including Ron Maggiano, whose 11 problems created by standardized testing was featured in the Washington Post article found in the references below.  Here are three of his points I find particularly compelling:

Standardized tests in the U.S. are NOT helping students be prepared for college or careers.

The high-stakes standardized tests used in U.S. public schools do not accurately measure what students have learned. 

Standardized tests mostly benefit companies making millions from them.

One of my saddest days as an educator was when I learned that Key Press, creators of the dynamic geometry software The Geometer's Sketchpad, were bought out by McGraw-Hill.  Much like Pearson, it was immediately obvious that McGraw-Hill did not share the same passion for teachers, emphasis on good teaching practices, and dedication to improvement in the field of mathematics education that Key did.  Instead, the McGraw-Hill's and Pearson's of the world are simply businesses, corporate-minded entities whose sole focus is making money.  It just so happens they are making it on the backs of our children.  As Maggiano observed, these types of companies are making millions and millions of dollars from the current obsession with standardized tests.

If you are not an educator, I encourage you to learn more about the myths surrounding standardized testing.  Here is a wonderful article by ASCD that explains very well why standardized tests do not (and in fact can not) accurately measure what it is we really want to learn about what students know and can do.  I especially love their statement that testing to measure quality of instruction and depth of knowledge is a classic example of "right task, wrong tools."  There are more resources in the reference section.

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The above graphic is particularly relevant for me as the standardized test the cartoon student is sweating over is the unfortunately-acronymed SOL test for Virginia, where Rimwe (and I) are located.  No, it doesn't stand for that, it actually refers to Standards of Learning.  Virginia is one of the few states who have not adopted the Common Core Standards.  Here is one of the blog posts I wrote about that and here is one that a guest blogger wrote for me if you'd like to read more about CCSS.

I will close with a FB status update from an educator friend of mine in Tennessee (posted during the time severe thunderstorms were in the area):

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As always, I'd love to hear from you.  

References:

Link for the opening graphic

Reference for the opening quote / statistic on standardized testing in the U.S.

Link for the SOL graphic (and a great article)

Article about the kindergarten show referred to in the above tweet

Article on the 11 problems created by standardized testing

Diane Ravitch's blog

Rimwe's Math Board on Pinterest

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Author:  Dr. Diana S. Perdue

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