Monday, August 24, 2015

Is Skepticism About High Stakes Testing Reaching a Tipping Point?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2015 at 1:30 PM

When my principal first introduced high stakes testing for sophomores at the Oregon high school where I taught—it was 2000 or just before—he told teachers, "Don't wait around for this to go away. Trust me, this one isn't going away." He was referring to the tendency of teachers to slow walk some changes suggested by higher-ups, especially ones that seem unproductive or counterproductive, expecting that they'll lose momentum and end up on the ash heap of ineffective school change ideas. But this time, my principal was right. High stakes testing had legs, and it's only grown stronger. Until, maybe, now.

A new poll from Phi Delta Kappa International, administered by Gallup, shows that people are starting to shift their ideas about the value of high stakes testing. Some 64 percent of people polled said they thought there was too much emphasis on standardized testing in public schools. Among people whose children were in public schools, the number was slightly higher, 67 percent. When asked if standardized test scores should be part of teacher evaluations, 55 percent said no. Among people whose children were in public schools, the number went up to 63 percent.

Gallup's analysis of the survey breaks down the data further. When people were asked the best ways to measure the effectiveness of a public school, student engagement with their classwork was at the top of the list and testing was at the bottom. Testing also placed at the bottom both in ways to create an accurate picture of a student's progress and ways to improve schools.

So far as I could tell, the analysis doesn't indicate whether the public's attitude toward high stakes testing has changed from previous years, but I'm reasonably certain it's gone down. We may be reaching a tipping point, where enough people think we're overemphasizing the tests that their use and importance may begin to lessen.

There are plenty of possible reasons why high stakes test are losing their allure. Maybe testing familiarity breeds contempt. The more people see of high stakes testing, the less they like it. Maybe the turn against Common Core standards, which is often accompanied by suspicion about the tests that accompany the standards, is turning more people against the tests. Maybe the fact that the Obama administration has taken over the No Child Left Behind, now Race to the Top, means conservatives who supported NCLB and the accompanying tests when it was Bush's program have decided that if Obama has his hands on it, it must be bad. All of those factors may be part of the shift, as well as many others I haven't considered.

One interesting takeaway from the data is that African American and Hispanic responders favored standardized testing more than Anglos, by a significant margin. It's possible part of the gap is because the anti-testing push has come out of Anglo groups, both progressive and conservative, and it will take more time before it takes hold in African American and Hispanic communities. But the primary reason may go deeper. It may be because they know their kids aren't being well served by the system and want that pointed out so that changes will be made for the better. If they were right, if low test scores meant more money and educational resources flowed to those schools and it was accompanied by more access to early childhood education and other social services in the community — in other words, if awareness led efforts for improvement—I would stand with them. Unfortunately, that's too rarely been the case. Instead, their schools, teachers and children are branded as failures and support is withdrawn from the schools. Low scores have been used to promote a privatization agenda, often by people who care more about crippling "government schools" and teachers unions than in helping children—something many of us believed was the primary agenda behind No Child Left Behind in the first place.

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