Saturday, February 20, 2016

How High-stakes Assessments Are Impacting Students, Teachers, and Schools

High-stakes testing – the widespread use of standardized tests that can affect, at times, the futures of teachers and students – has greatly increased in this era of policymakers striving for “accountability,” and in some states has been a wave that has crested, leaving everyone looking for an elusive new equilibrium.

The criticism of the testing regime that has grown vary familiar in the United States centers on these points:

•    It narrows the curriculum by excluding subject matter that isn’t tested
•    It reduces learning to the memorization of facts easily recalled for multiple-choice testing
•    It diverts too much classroom time to test preparation rather than learning

Educators report that the testing emphasis has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, focusing more on critical reading and math skills.  Some think this narrowing shortchanges students from learning important subjects while others see it as the recipe to help low-achieving students catch up.
All in all, for all its flaws, high-stakes testing does seem to increase the amount of learning, and “emerging studies suggest that teaching to the test can be good or bad: Good if it means teaching a focused and aligned curriculum; bad if it reduces instruction to the memorization of test items.”

I spoke to two teachers in New York state public schools to get their perspectives on the effects of high-stakes testing in recent years. Here’s what I found.

In New York, as of this year, the connection between high-stakes testing results and teacher evaluations has been greatly reduced, as a result of a parent popular uprising against too much testing. The governor, in essence, declared a four-year moratorium on the practice. But it would be a mistake to suppose that tests are not continuing to be a major presence with a big impact. For one thing, it depends on how the district’s union negotiated the last contract, and in places it can still be between 20 and 50 % of a teacher’s score.

Tavis teaches 9th grade global studies, for which there is no test. As a result, his assessment is based on results of school-wide Math and English Regents exams which are entirely unrelated to the subject matter he teaches – a situation which he finds to be ludicrous. He also teaches AP Psych, for which students spend significant time in test prep, taking 13 exams leading up to the AP test.

Steve considers himself lucky because he mostly teaches in a special STEM program that is unrelated to any standardized testing. 2 of his 10 classes, though, are in 5th grade math, which is tested heavily: a “Star Assessment” 3 times/year; “benchmarking” tests of teachers; Common Core state assessments; and, last year, field testing for a future test, which he finds ‘criminal,’ essentially free market testing for testing behemoth Pierson. He feels there is too much testing.

Both Tavis and Steve affirm that they and other teachers most definitely teach to the test. Tavis reports that students are taking the AP course to have it on their transcript, and for credit, and they need a 4 or 5 for credit they have to get good results. He says that those teachers who don’t deliver results, the admin asks them “what’s going on.” He says the administration “says they want you to teach various ways, but in the end they look at the scores.”

Steve agrees, but he also highlights the other side: “Content knowledge in tests, especially as per Common Core, is not inherently bad. And we need assessments, even if the way they’re doing it is bad. I’m being hired by them, it’s my job, I can’t just say my ‘y’ is better than your ‘x.’ And a lot of teachers are much more comfortable teaching to the test. It gives them a framework, and without it, they flounder a bit.”

Does this testing increase pressure on the students? Both teachers say it does, but Tavis emphasizes that there have been tests for a long time, and students put pressure on themselves. But now, the students have to pass tests in order to graduate. It used to be, the school would “find a way to make them pass.” And now, with test directly tied to teacher, teachers put more pressure on the students to perform.

Steve suggests that the test highlight the value of being a high performer. “Face it,” he says, “it’s status in the classroom. It’s real.” And in tune with the research of Carol Dweck, he sees how test success translates into a desire by student to preserve the appearance of high performer, over intellectual curiosity. High achievement leads them, he says, away from wanting to explore processes more deeply. And the irony, he says, is that this this effect is exactly antithetical to the Common Core goals.

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