Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Torlakson Calls for Less Testing—Modern School Calls for No Testing

(Image adapted from Flickr image by DefeatEd2K4)
California’s Superintendent of Schools, Tom Torlakson, has called for a reduction in the number of standardized tests that students must take. Under his new plan, second-graders would not be tested in math and English next year, and most high school tests would also be dropped, the Los Angeles Times report last week. However, because of federal requirements, students would still be tested in math and English in grades 3-8, and in science in grades 5, 8 and 10, and the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) would also remain in place.

The Times gives the impression that there will be a significant reduction in high stakes standardized tests under the Torlakson plan. However, at the high school level, there really aren’t many universally administered high stakes exams beside the NCLB tests, and the state’s CST and high school exit exams. Thus, Torlakson is not really proposing a significant reduction in testing. Rather, because of the state’s implementation of the Common Core Standards, a new exam must be phased in over the next few years, making the current CST test redundant.

One Test is Too Many
All high stakes standardized tests are bad for children, teachers and schools, and they should all be abolished. They are expensive to administer and assess, and the preparation for the tests saps further resources for teachers’ professional development and the purchase of curriculum, supplies and textbooks. The tests are stressful for students, adding unnecessary anxiety to their already harried lives. The testing can take up to several weeks of class time, reducing the amount of time available for more student-centered activities that foster creativity, curiosity and critical thinking and this contributes to children’s alienation from and disdain for school.

Supporters argue that the tests are necessary for holding teachers and schools accountable. Torlakson himself called the current tests "a very powerful tool" for improving learning, according to the Times. However, there is no evidence that any high stakes standardized test accomplishes these goals, nor is there any reason to expect then to. The tests can only tell us how well a student compares to his peers in answering questions under pressure. They cannot tell us why one student does better than another under these conditions (e.g., smarter, better at working under pressure, more affluent and better access to resources at home, or better teachers).

Furthermore, even if the tests could answer these questions, a comparison between students should not be the goal. That a student is in the top quintile is far less relevant than knowing which benchmarks of achievement that student has met. While a university with limited space might be tempted to choose an applicant in the top 1% over one in the top 10% as a short cut in determining which is more likely to succeed or thrive at the school, the latter student could conceivably be the former’s equal (or better) at reading, writing, math, science or history, or more likely to succeed.

Benchmarks are also more useful than peer comparisons in determining whether students are graduating with the “necessary” skills. For example, if one goal of school is that all students graduate knowing how to calculate an average, it is irrelevant who can do it better or faster. Benchmark assessments tell us which students have mastered this skill. In contrast, the typical standardized test, which tells us which quintile a student falls into, will always have 20% of students in the lowest quintile, even if 100% of students mastered or failed a benchmark skill.

The Testing Will Continue Until Morale Improves
Children tend to start school with excitement and enthusiasm. It is a place to be with friends or make new ones. Learning, itself, is fun and exciting for children, or at least it can be when it is child-centered and the child is given ample freedom to explore and experiment and is provided encouragement and affection. Consider the difference between a teacher standing in the front of a group of students making them repeat after her, versus giving students the freedom to choose for themselves from a room full of toys, games and art and construction materials.

Tests are not inherently fun (though it is possible to trick younger children into thinking of them as a game). Tests require sitting still for extended periods of time. They are highly regimented, with fixed, inflexible structures and answers. Schools’ obsession with improving test scores compels many to replace free exploration and student-centered activities with rote memorization and test practice, activities that stifle curiosity and excitement. And many schools are starting this process at the K-2 grades, a time when free play is most critical.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy criticized Torlakson’s plan, saying they needed testing at the 2nd-grade level to identify at-risk students. He also worried that officials would have trouble identifying at-risk high schools. Yet teachers were able to identify their at-risk students before the advent of high stakes standardized tests. Likewise, districts have always been able to identify their struggling schools. What Deasy (and other “reformers”) really want is an “objective” measure of success and failure that they (not the teachers) control, that they can use to weaken teacher’s job security and working conditions and to steamroll through free market “reforms” that enrich their allies and benefactors. 

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