Step 1

Like all licensed teachers in Oregon, I recently received a survey from the state about Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA). I jumped on this opportunity with both feet. Finally, they are asking teachers for input. Time will tell whether or not feedback from educators will fall on deaf ears.

Coincidentally, the fourth chapter in Alfie Kohn’s book The Schools Our Children Deserve focuses on standardized testing in the US, and all that is so very wrong and detrimental about it.  While he wrote this book just prior to the takeover of CCSS and SBA, the downside of high-stakes tests remains the same. For teachers, students, and schools, I can think of exactly zero up-sides.

The culture of standardized testing has quickly risen to be an accepted and unquestioned practice, an inevitable and entrenched part of our education system, packaged as a cure-all. Nineteen states, including Oregon. (Other states use other tests.) Forty-three states and D.C. have adopted CCSS, even when excellent standards were already in use, such as the NCTM math standards. Here is what I believed and knew about standardized testing prior to reading Chapter 4, with some quotes from Kohn sprinkled in.

1.  These tests are about power. Someone, or a group of someones, not in education wants to be in control; they want to control exactly what and how children learn, what and how teachers teach.
2.  These tests are about politics. Claiming that education needs reforming, that schools or teachers are sub-par, that kids are not learning, are unprepared for the future, etc., is a great platform for election that has been used for generations. And it works. “Excellence and victory are two completely different goals.”
3.  These tests are about profit, but not for schools. Testing companies, textbook companies (paper and online), “learning” apps, workbooks, and so on, are making a LOT of money.
4.  Related to #1, standardized testing of standards is an ill-informed, convoluted attempt to hold teachers and schools accountable and to rank them. Even if no style of teaching is endorsed, testing is “a vague desire to hold schools accountable coupled with a total ignorance of other ways of achieving that goal.”
5.  The data about schools and students generated by standardized tests is mis-interpreted and misused. School stats are published, and the community believes this is all that matters, ignoring or forgetting what really does. In spite of being promoted as criterion-referenced tests, the way in which data is published and used boils it down to norm-referencing both schools and students. It’s great fodder for back-to-basics special- interest groups, ignorant haters, and politicians.
They halt (or at least greatly hinder) genuine, honest, productive, informed conversations about teaching and learning because raising test scores has become all-important. Good test scores = good teaching/good school/good student. “Teaching to the test is completely different from providing good instruction and assessing it accurately.”
7.  Standardized testing creates a huge amount of needless anxiety in students, reducing them to numbers and labels that are harmful to them and their learning. Like all forms of numerical judgement, test scores create fixed mindsets about intelligence and generate status (or lack thereof).
8.  They require students to work and think in isolation. The testing environment implies that only what you do alone has value; in reality, people live and learn and work together. The oh-you’re-completely-on-your-own approach is not normal human behavior.
9.  These tests promote and validate data-driven, outcome-oriented schools and classroom cultures, snuffing out creative, student-oriented learning cultures and compelling even the best of teachers to prioritize content that will be tested. “Once teachers and students are compelled to focus only on what lends itself to quantification, such as the number of grammatical errors in a composition or the number of state capitals memorized, the process of thinking has been severely compromised.”
10.  Valuable learning time is significantly reduced and given over to review, test-taking strategies, practice tests, and the long test itself. Weeks. When preparing students for testing is a priority, some students are put into additional tested-content classes, or are pulled out of other classes to complete tests. The message for students is that we learn in order to take tests and that only the highly-tested subject matter.
11.  These tests are not valid. (I said this out loud once to a principal and got severely reprimanded.) People under duress have difficulty thinking clearly. This is a FACT. Many students manage their stress by doing the test as fast as possible, just guessing. (Flight) Others completely shut down. (Freeze) Even if they start out trying their best, the test is long and emotion eventually takes over. Other students simply don’t care because the test lacks personal importance. (Fight) None of these situations can possibly be an accurate measure of what a student understands.
12.  They test only what is easily testable and can be marked right or wrong. This is really detrimental to learning, as it elevates memorizing basic facts and procedures and devalues critical thinking, creativity, reflection, and conceptual understanding. “Right answers don’t necessarily signal understanding and wrong answers don’t necessarily signal the absence of understanding. A minor calculation error is interchangeable with a major failure of reasoning”, once again raising the question of validity.
13.  These tests are not useful to teachers or students. In spite of the lack of meaningful, timely, and valid information, test data is given a lot of weight because it is often mis-interpreted (such as using scores as evidence of growth) or used poorly (such as to sort students). Behaviorists “fail to see how the process of coming to understand ideas in a classroom is not always linear or quantifiable. Contrary to virtually every discussion of education by the Tougher Standards contingent, meaningful learning does not proceed along a single dimension in such a way that we can nail down the extent of improvement. In fact, as Linda McNeil has observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”
14.  These tests are not equitable because they ignore the human element, the individuality of people. “Standardized” assumes that every child is the same–learns the same, reads and processes information the same, has the same background, same culture, same values, same language, same reasoning, is ready at the same time, has the same testing skills….Standardized Test writers HAVE to make these assumptions or they would never be able to write a one-size-fits-all test. The writers and the tests define not only what knowledge is valuable (that which can be easily tested) but WHO is valuable, like anyone who is Really Good at taking standardized tests (whether or not they really understand content).
15.  Benchmarks feel (and may very well be) arbitrary, artificial, and mysterious to students (and even to some teachers.). See also #7 for their harm. I had a student once who was really happy with his score. For the first time in quite awhile, he “met expectations”. Then I had to break the news; the benchmark for passing in seventh grade had been moved up. You should have seen his face. All the progress he had made that year on his beliefs about himself and his capabilities were wiped out in an instant.
16.  Although SBA is a great improvement over prior multiple-guess tests, it is still a mandated, standardized test with an over-inflated importance.
17.  People who read the student-generated responses are most often non-educators. It is a job for them; they get very little training about exactly what to look for, lack expertise to accept responses that are legitimate but fall outside of what-to-look-for, and they are paid by the number of tests they score. None of this is good for students. Invalid: 3. Valid: 0
18.  Standardized tests, and those that promote them, assume (and perpetuate the myth) that teaching and learning is as simple as providing a list of what to learn (and a standards-aligned textbook, of course) and testing students against the list. So. Very. Ignorant. And arrogant. “In a broad sense, it is easier to measure efficiency than effectiveness, easier to rate how well we are doing something than to ask if what we are doing makes sense.”

The first step in problem-solving is to identify the problem. Done. Next: think about, read about, ask, talk, write about solutions. I’m moving on to Step 2. I think the answers may lie in turning our energy and attention to developing learning cultures in schools and classrooms, tapping into student strengths, and considering alternative forms of feedback that inspire and celebrate genuine learning.


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