Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why parents should call for an end to high-stakes testing.

Contrary to the cheerleading by politicians and the media, parents should have a major concern over the new teacher evaluation system that has made many headlines in recent months. Unfortunately many of these newsmakers and so-called reformers have little or no experience in the classroom and their ignorance about education policy will hurt our children. On the surface it is easy to see the logic of how people would believe in high stakes standardized testing.  If a teacher raises test scores, then that educator must be of high quality, if no progress is made then we should fire that teacher.  We need to delve further into how testing hurts students before we truly believe that these reform movements will help our children.

Parents need to be aware that using these high-stakes test results to evaluate teachers will have long-term negative effects on their children. Some parents may think that these exams are “just a test”, but unfortunately the test has become the central focus for school districts.  Administrators are constantly emphasizing the importance of test results to their staff. The effect of this irresponsible policy is that we will see a further teaching to the test, well beyond what occurred during the last ten years of No Child Left Behind.  The time devoted to test skills and preparation will continue to increase while the narrowing of curriculum will occur.  Elementary teachers feel the pressure to increase math and ELA scores and some are neglecting history and science. Programs in the arts are being cut in favor of increasing test preparation time. Students are losing some of the fun experiences that provide true learning instead replaced by drill and kill lessons.

      The student and teacher relationship may also change.  Will a student become just a number?  Will teachers see a test score instead of a human being when dealing with students who need academic help or guidance through personal problems? It is sadly ironic that college and career readiness standards are being pushed at the same raising the stakes of testing that will not prepare students for life after graduation. The NCLB generations are starting to graduate from high school and many lack the critical thinking skills needed to be successful in the future.

The reformers call for the use of data to help teachers and their students. The vague data that is provided to educators does not provide the information necessary to improve instruction. Using a number to judge an educator or child is trying to simplify a situation that is much more complex than any statistic can reveal. 

Exams do not truly show the abilities of all children.  Some students are poor test takers and crack under pressure of high stakes exams.  These children can excel when given the proper time and atmosphere to express what they have learned. Students also experience burnout, as the many days of testing add to their stress.  The exam time frames have been increased to three days for each of ELA and math tests, so students will have six days of high stakes exams over a period of ten school days this spring.  The state education department has also raised the daily timeframe of these exams to durations that are completely inappropriate for students, especially an eight or nine-year old, to focus and perform at their best. The testing timeframe may increase if high stakes exams are added to other subjects.  Imagine the nightmare of five to six weeks of constant examinations.

High stakes testing proponents claim that using exam results to evaluate teachers will help remove lazy or ineffective educators from the classroom.  Actually this form of teacher rating could help the small percentage of teachers who are considered weak.  It is very easy and requires little effort for a teacher to teach to the test, so the ineffective educator may actually do well under a system with test accountability.   An interesting and fun learning environment that goes beyond the workbooks and drills takes much more skill and time to prepare.  It is certainly possible that a teacher who challenges their students with well thought out lessons that involve critical thinking and knowledge beyond the basic facts could have lower test scores than the ineffective teacher.

A buzzword from the school reform circles is competition.  This may work well for the public in the business world, but not in education.  The best way for teachers to improve their instruction and develop as a professional is to work cooperatively with their colleagues.  The sharing of ideas, lessons and best practices is the hallmark of a cohesive school environment that benefits the students. Would an educator think twice before helping a colleague, when that sharing could result in the other teacher being higher ranked?  This corporate model of education reform will fail our children.

Teachers are not afraid of fair evaluation. Principals and exemplar teachers should have their schedules opened up to perform much more classroom observation of their colleagues than what is occurring now.  This method of professional guidance will help improve instruction and ultimately help our children succeed.

         Parents should demand an end to the over testing of our children.  NCLB and Race to the Top have created costly mandates to local districts.  The required testing and data systems are siphoning already shrinking school budgets from our kids to corporations that provide the needed programs, software and materials. The resulting catastrophic rise in class sizes will hurt our children’s education. Teachers voices have been drowned out with the media propaganda storm in favor of high stakes testing, the only way to save our children from the damage of these misguided reforms is for parents to stand up and say no to this madness.