What’s The Big Deal With Standardized Testing, Anyway?

Ah, late April. The weather is warming, the birds are chirping, flies have started to invade my house. And the students at school are almost – almost – done with standardized testing.

Think if I say that enough times, it will become true?

I wrote a post similar to this last year (find it here) wherein I questioned the number of supposedly productive hours students use to take standardized tests. I predicted it would get worse.

Sometimes, I hate it when I’m right.

In addition to DIBELS, MAP, and CMAS, this year was the first year students took the PARCC test. There have been numerous articles blasting Pearson for glitches in the PARCC system, for invading students’ privacy (via tweet monitoring) and for not releasing scores for six months or longer after the test.

I don’t need to add to that noise. I want to talk about the kids.

learning loveToday, I watched two first graders cry because their MAP scores weren’t high enough. First of all, I don’t blame the teacher for the tears. I don’t even blame the school or the district. I believe crying kids is a symptom of a huge systemic problem.

It starts with standards, which are not bad to have. I hold myself to certain standards when I write. It would be nice if the some in the general public had standards of how to dress when going outside (let’s make sure all the essentials are covered, k?). Standards say “this is what you need to do to succeed.” Not a bad thing.

But…

The way standards are written and used can easily become an unmanageable monstrosity.

For fun, I looked up a few for second grade in reading, writing, and communication (the document outlining these standards is 27 pages long, by the way).

This is one under the Oral Expression and Listening standard: Students can produce complete sentences when appropriate to task and situation in order to provide requested detail or clarification.  (CCSS: SL.2.6)

Translation: students will speak in complete sentences. Remember back in the day, when that was on your report card?

This one’s under the Reading for All Purposes standard: Students can demonstrate use of self-monitoring comprehension strategies: rereading, checking context clues, predicting, questioning, clarifying, activating schema/background knowledge to construct meaning and draw inferences. 

Count how many things are in that last standard. I’ll give you a minute.

Just from the two I’ve listed, and if you read the others on that 27-page document, you can see that every little bit of information our kids are to know has been standardized. Every one.

They can’t just learn how to read and write letters now. HOW they learn it and demonstrate that they’ve learned it is official and will likely be tested. And so will every other minute skill the state deemed necessary for success. It’s no longer good enough to have a student read a passage and answer questions, where we as educators can make the logical leap that if they can read the passage and understand it, they, you know, know how to read. It’s no longer good enough for us to have a conversation with students about the novel they’re reading to see if they’re thinking critically. Because we aren’t computers, we aren’t working in a standardized environment, and we can’t be trusted.

So think about the 27 pages, which just included standards for second grade just in the areas of reading, writing, and communication. The other grades and subjects have their own lengthy documents. How on earth are we supposed to assess all those?

Enter the hours and hours of testing. I spoke with a fifth grade teacher today, and I think she said today’s test was their 23rd for the year. And they still have the rest of PARCC to go.

End of year scores aren’t as high as we expect, I believe because the kids are freaking tired of all the testing. 7-year-olds are crying because they didn’t meet an arbitrary goal. Teachers, who I see work their butts off every day and put in countless hours of unpaid overtime, are penalized when the percentage of students who pass the culturally biased and developmentally inappropriate tests isn’t high enough.

So what’s the big deal? Education has become an us vs. them situation: us being educators, students, and parents; them being state departments of education and testing companies. More parents are opting their kids out of state testing (PARCC, specifically), and maybe if this trend continues, something will give. In the meantime, realize what our kids are up against: literally everything they do is tracked, and there’s little room for creativity.

And remember what’s behind the scores – young kids and overworked educators, all trying to make a difference in the world, trying to prove that they matter. I hope, when they consider their value as a people, test scores will be the last thing they think about.

9 thoughts on “What’s The Big Deal With Standardized Testing, Anyway?

  1. Pingback: I’m Not Stressed, Dammit! | Allison Maruska

  2. This is a great post, Alison. You clearly point out the ludicracy of the tests; the harm the testing mentality is doing to students, and the unfortunate ‘us and them’ mentality that has developed. We should all be pulling together. Unfortunately, where there is a buck to be made, someone will do their utmost to make it, regardless of the cost to others. It is our children and our future who are being sacrificed here. That so many people are speaking in unified voices against this anti-education monstrosity gives at least a glimmer of hope for change.

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  3. Oh, Allison. In spite of having no direct involvement in this subject–I’m neither a teacher nor a parent, nor currently a student–it hurts my heart a little to read this post. First graders doing standardized testing? Oh, jeez. When I was a kid, it started in third grade, and even then people were complaining about it happening too early!

    I was a bright kid. I’m not trying to brag, it’s just the truth–I was in the top percentile of each of those tests every year until I got out of the basic EOG classes.
    (My parents were ever so proud). And lemme tell you–I hated school. I hated it passionately. I hated it because it was very boring, because we never got to talk about the stuff I actually found interesting (and there was plenty of it in those lessons. It just never mattered, because it wasn’t on a test somewhere.). So you can imagine what happened. As I got to high school and got more independent, my grades started dropping. I left college in my junior year. I just never liked school. Even once it got a little better–and college, as far as taking things for course requirements is concerned, isn’t much better–I could never get over my innate hatred of it.

    I wasn’t encouraged to hate school. My father was a professor. My mom values education very highly. But I did. In large part, especially in grade and middle school, because I was very, very bored. My SAT scores were great. I was frequently accused, in high school and college, of not ‘working up to my potential’–which is a hurtful phrase, when all you do on the side is write novels and read. Well, I guess when you do those things in class, it’s ‘not working up to your potential’.

    I feel bad about it, as an adult. I recognize how stupid and needlessly rebellious I was. If I’d been able and willing to jump through a few more hoops–let’s be honest, if I’d learned how before it got too late for me to learn–I might be making more money now. And, of course, like a kid does, I often blamed my teachers for ‘being boring’: which, again, as an adult, I realize now probably had very little to do with them, and everything to do with what they had been instructed to accomplish.

    I’m telling this disjointed story because it’s my experience with standardized testing–that the kids this ridiculous testing hurts most are often the bright ones.
    I don’t blame standardized testing for everything I hated about school–some of it was a teen-sized ego, stubbornness, and the frequent softening petting bestowed on my own precocious little head–but I do blame some of it. I’d already met the standards, and thus not a lot of extra effort was expended on me and whether or not I was learning anything. Why should there have been? I met the standards.

    Sorry for leaving you with this mawkish post-bomb, but this brought back a lot of memories. I’m not proud to be a failure case, but there you go.

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    • I completely agree that the testing hurts the bright ones, and not just because teachers are putting more energy into the “partially proficients” to make them “proficients”. On one of the tests, students receive a number – this is their goal (this is the test that made the first graders cry). This number comes from their past performance on the test. So if a kid scores a 171, they might have a goal of 176 for the next test. Here’s the kicker – the high kids score high to begin with – say, 210. They start so high that it’s much harder for them to meet their next goal of 216. That puts a first grader in fifth grade territory. Sure, they’re more “at their instructional level” with this one test, but the first grader testing at a first grade level has a much easier time of showing that growth. I’ve seen in over and over. Fifth grade tests would have more abstract questioning, and developmental psychology tells us first graders simply aren’t ready to grapple with abstract concepts.
      Bottom line: the high kids don’t meet their goals BECAUSE they’re high kids. So they may be bored, but now they get to also feel like failures. Hooray!

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  4. I like the idea of standardized testing. In every facet of the companies I’ve worked for, and the ones I’ve worked, I needed to know what result I expected and manage myself or others to achieve it. I do the same thing with my physical regimen (I run, and I make sure I get my mile in a certain amount of time) and many other aspects of my life. It work for me.

    If a kid cries, that’s a shame, but I’ve seen kids melt down over not getting ice cream. Don’t even get me started on teachers. I’m not picking a fight; I was lucky to go to good schools in Ohio and to have parents that gave a damn if I learned or not. As for cultural bias, who knows. If I went to school in France or Egypt, I’d probably have to learn some of their culture to do well there. We’ll save that for another day.

    I live in Florida now. The list of egregious and embarrassing things some of our teachers here have done isn’t borderline disgusting, it’s plain old disgusting. But I know that’s not all teachers. The fact that the ones who crossed the line still aren’t fired is a sore spot, I’ll grant you. But so it the 8th grade history teacher who can’t spell, the English teacher who can’t add or do fractions… Our schools here were ranked at the bottom of the pile 20 years ago and they still are. The fact is, teachers don’t all work hard. They don’t all care. And a lot of really good teachers get run off or burned out by incompetent management. I’ve seen it.

    The idea of standardized testing here was to see what worked in Pennsylvania and New York and other places that were topped ranked, and implement them here. Set a standard – makes sense. Like they used to say, if you don’t have a plan, you’re unlikely to get where you’re trying to go.

    Now I have a kid in those schools I shook my head over 20 years ago. I seriously considered home schooling her. Know why I didn’t? Because I’m not sure I’d be good enough at it. (I could teach her to be a helluva manager, though.) Instead, I get to be the super-involved parent who is uber supportive of her teachers. (I’m old school that way. We might disagree on a teacher’s methods, but that’ll be behind closed doors. The kid won’t ever see anything but a united front, because unless it’s abusive, the teacher needs that authority.) Because I think that I can get a top ranked student out of any school if I’m willing to invest my time into making her one.

    That may be foolish. I have to try. The tests are cumbersome, but they’re not intended to be evil. They’re supposed to make sure kids don’t get pushed through the system, and to make sure shitty schools are called on the carpet, not to embarrass anyone, but to improve the situation. Cos for a long time kids were pushed through the system, and schools failed their communities. We’re still paying for those crimes, but the slackers who committed them, and the corrupt politicians who allowed it, mostly got off scott free.

    I can’t speak for other places. Here, we’re stumbling. Have been for a long time. I’m open to anything that might help, but not blindly so. Not at any cost. It’s been my experience that cockroaches run when the lights are turned on. If the tests aren’t getting it done, rally the troops to end it. I’ve got money and time for that cause. I’ve picked the hills I want to die on in the past and mostly I conquered it. And I’ll do it again if I have to. Because I want what’s best for my kid.

    We may be stumbling, but it’s my hope we’re stumbling in the right direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not saying all schools/teachers are perfect. None are, if we’re being literal. The problem is how all this standardized data is being used. Taking a test in April and not getting scores back until November isn’t useful for instruction in any way. So what are those scores used for? And is it worth stressing everyone out to get them?
      Yes, let’s see what works in other places and apply it. But if you’re going to create high-stakes tests around what other places are doing, you’d better make damned sure the environments are standardized as well. Send all kids to preschool. Repair dilapidated buildings. Stop pretending poverty has no impact on a child’s education.
      In the beginning, tests put a spotlight on weaknesses in certain schools, and I agree with you that it needed to happen. But we’re past that now. Testing companies are making a mint off these tests with the blessing of legislators. Meanwhile, there have been studies that show the only reliable data that come from the tests is that poverty impacts learning (look it up). The school where I work didn’t have good leadership for many years, until our current principal took the reigns five years ago. Now, teachers are all on the same mission, students know exactly what’s expected of them, they are learning, and they come to school because it’s a safe place where even if they fail, they know they are valued and their strengths mean something.
      The amazing things happening at my school aren’t reflected in the scores. It’s a number in the paper that gets compared to all the other numbers from other schools. That handful of students didn’t test at a proficient level in reading on that one test, but that number doesn’t show those students made more than a year’s growth in seven months. They’re still behind, and that’s all the test measures.
      You said something that is key – you’ll get a top ranked kid out of any school if you invest your time. That’s absolutely right. And that’s what any parent should do – you can’t directly control what happens in the school or dept. of ed., but you can control what happens with your own kids.

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