The High Cost of High Stakes Testing (Spoiler Alert! It Hurts Students with Disadvantages the Most!)

The High Cost of High Stakes Standardized Testing

(Spoiler Alert! It Hurts Students with Disadvantages the Most!)

 

I have a dear friend who values my input on matters in his personal life, then becomes flushed with gratitude after I offer meager scraps of wisdom rooted in experience, which then prompts him to inquire as to how he could ever repay my acts of friendship. I have to remind him that people are not commodities and that not every interaction requires a cost and benefit analysis or exchange. He’s a financial analyst in the healthcare industry, so this fact is not always as evident to him as it may be to someone who has spent 17 years in education, and even longer as a parent. Apparently this tidbit of information that I shared with my friend has not been obvious to those formulating education policy either. If students were not viewed as profit potential, or as indistinguishable data, then the research that conclusively demonstrates that 80% of a student’s academic performance is linked to factors beyond school walls such as environment, family, health, and socioeconomic status would actually be utilized to implement effective societal and educational reform. Doing something productive with regard to the issues that impact a student’s educational advantages or disadvantages, would be much more beneficial than adding more lard to the already obese test company profits. More tests and pseudo accountability are not going to address a single one of the family or societal factors currently affecting student academic performance.

In order to provide a more comprehensive portrayal of what our country is now spending on testing, the American Federation of Teachers published a study in 2013 of two mid-size urban districts with the pseudonyms “Midwestern School District” and “Eastern School District.” The costs of testing ranged from $200-$1100 per student based on the grade level of the student. Hours spent on testing and test preparation ranged from 65-165 hours across the two districts based on grade level, as well.

What has been lost as a result of testing absorbing dollars and  time? Physical education, the arts, and recess have been reduced or eliminated, especially in schools serving underprivileged or special needs students because the curriculum becomes hyper focused on trying to cram test knowledge into students who arrive grade levels behind their middle and upper class peers. Countries with the highest performing students have an approach to education that is exactly the opposite of what we are doing in the United States because there is a bountiful amount of research that reveals children are better students if they have physical activity, exposure to the arts, and when their most basic needs are being met.

In order to maximize academic opportunities, students need to be well rested, well fed, feel safe, and have stability in their lives. Unfortunately, for the first time in fifty years, over half of the children in our public schools meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch, which means they are from low income households that fall within federal poverty guidelines. Educators have always known that it is harder to engage hungry students in learning, and researchers have had evidence for over a decade that food insecurity impairs reading and math development in children. Can we use high stakes standardized tests to feed these hungry children who come from homes with food insecurity? Can we use high stakes standardized tests to eradicate poverty, violence, police mistrust, or feelings of hopelessness? Will high stakes testing assist our students suffering from a  lack of exposure to early childhood literacy development or improve the social skills of a generation growing up dependent on electronics? Have high stakes standardized tests and promises of merit pay inspired our brightest high school graduates to flood the education colleges with admissions applications, or assisted at all with retaining the 40-50% of teachers who enter the profession then leave within five years? Are current educators pleading for positions in “low performing” schools to serve students who possess performance potential not yet reached, where they need additional resources and the best educators the most?  There is one answer to all of those questions: NO.

Worse yet, high stakes standardized testing has negatively impacted students of color, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic environments, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. I have witnessed and possess evidence of schools removing children from their enrollment lists because a student does not have a history of performing well on tests. I have also seen schools retain students on their rosters because there is a potential for the student to perform well on a high stakes standardized test, even if the student requires accommodations and services that cannot be provided by that specific school. I have serviced students that have become entangled in the school to prison pipeline partly because they are viewed as liabilities that may drag down building test scores. The focus on what is best for students is lost when schools and their staffs are forced to chase chimerical numbers that will determine the effectiveness of their school and possibly their salaries.

The idea of merit pay for educators is a concept fraught with illogical fallacies, not surprisingly concocted by capitalists hoping to profit off of children under the guise of education reform. These capitalists also seem to have convinced politicians to support nonsensical policies, or they have enough discretionary funds to ensure that research and evidence play no role in decision making when it is time to produce or enforce education legislation. I am not even going to waste time inserting a link here about the lack of correlation between improved instruction, student learning, and merit pay. Could anyone who enters the teaching profession possibly be monetarily motivated  by an average starting salary of a little over $36,000 per year? Individuals do not enter education to build tangible wealth, but we are not the martyrs that we were once historically portrayed as either. As professionals with degrees and advanced educations, we deserve salaries that are commensurate with our skills and knowledge. We enter the profession consciously sacrificing material reward for the personal fulfillment that accompanies teaching. However, we also have families that we love and that rely on us for their support. If a consistent salary is contingent in any way on high stakes standardized test scores that actually reflect a child’s upbringing rather than the effectiveness of the teacher, how could any individual choose to risk their livelihood and the ability to support their family in order to work at a school with students who have  challenges and are predicted to perform poorly on standardized tests? This leaves students who need the best educators the most at risk for a continued pattern of teacher attrition and high staff turnover rates, which exacerbates the struggles that already exist. High stakes standardized testing contributes to the perpetuation of educational inequities entrenched in high poverty areas. They do nothing resolve them.

Due to the erroneous and morally egregious high stakes associated with standardized testing such as the ability to graduate from high school, grade retention, or linking teacher evaluations to scores, we have punished the most vulnerable members of our society. How did our country arrive at a point at which OUR CHILDREN could be viewed as potential liabilities? Stakeholders may need to be reminded that we are judged by how we treat our weakest and most powerless citizens. I have great hope for the future if education reform is intelligently designed and research based. However, the prospect of generations yet to come examining our current educational structure should provoke tremendous trepidation among those who helped create this quandary.

In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren stated with regard to Brown v. Board of Education   “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms.” High stakes standardized testing has completely failed to create equal terms. Instead it has  intensified educational disparities. It is unfathomable that a statement made sixty-plus years ago concerning school segregation, is still so completely relevant in 2015.

My High Stakes Testing Story

Where do I begin? Should I start with the fact that education is what saved me as a teen mother with 2 sons from the welfare roles, but that my story is even less likely in today’s grossly segregated and inequitable educational structure? Or should I list the 18 years of impressive credentials that I accumulated through long hours, never ending learning, networking with families and community organizations, experience, and my passion for social justice? Perhaps I should take a cue from others who have been influencing educational policies and start with some sensationalist, biased statement that completely lacks foundation, but that generates emotions and draws self-serving attention. If I lie and say that I have never actually taught in a classroom but I am wealthy and know capitalism, would that prompt the politicians, legislators, civil rights organizations, or media outlets to finally acknowledge the valid concerns I have been contacting them about this past year? Should I begin by asking any of them to admit that paternalistic policies, whether they are from liberal elitists with good intentions or wealthy conservatives hoping to cash in on education, that dictate educational practices to a PROFESSION in which 76% of its members are female is just perpetuating the blatant discrimination that began over 100 years ago, when women were recruited for the profession because they could be paid half as much as male teachers? So much is wrong with educational policy right now that it is difficult to know where to start.

 

Let me begin in my own home where four boys are nurtured to be curious and enjoy learning almost as much as they like playing. Two sons are in public universities and avoided much of the high stakes testing craze that currently exists in the lower grades. My youngest two have not been as lucky. Last year, my fourteen year old son had to attend an 8th grade science class at 7:20 am every morning which was 45 minutes before the rest of the students began school. Even though early start times like that are in exact opposition to adolescent brain research and development, we had to find him his own transportation every morning to take this 8th grade science class in order for him to be enrolled in the 9th grade advanced science class that he was recommended for, because the 9th grade science curriculum is not on the 8th grade Ohio Achievement Test which he had to take in the spring. Luckily, I am a middle class suburban mother who was able to arrange carpools with friends in the same situation as us, or my son would have had to miss out on his recommended science class for a lower level one that could accommodate Ohio’s testing requirements. How many lower income students were not as fortunate and remained stuck in a science class that stagnated their growth? I do not want to start asking thoughtful and relevant questions again as teachers have a tendency to do, so I’ll move on.

 

The experience of my cheerful, kind, curious, and active 9 year old last school year still creates a knot in my stomach and lump in my throat. Although he had a fantastic teacher who nourished his mind and soul, she could not shelter him from the stress of Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee, which requires students to either pass the high stakes test or prove that certain interventions occurred that would get them on track to grade level performance, in order to be promoted to the 4th grade. Even though my son began his 3rd grade school year with a reading performance score on his measure of academic progress test that indicated he was already reading at a level he should not have been at until the end of 3rd grade, he was recommended for Title I because he could not answer poorly constructed and confusing standardized test questions correctly on the fall state reading test. The current standardized test practices are not supported by research as improving student learning, or being a valid measurement of their academic progress based on what is known about children’s brain development, and what we know about factors that contribute to successful schools and students. Yet, this one state test mandated intervention for my third grader with the very real risk of his retention in the 3rd grade if participation in intervention did not occur, or if he did not meet state reading proficiency levels on the spring test. He began having stomach aches, crying over homework, started hating school, and lost confidence in his academic abilities. Meanwhile, I was at a loss to explain to my son how any part of his experience could be justified, or how these high stakes standardized tests, after tests, after tests, were improving his learning. According to Ph. D Randy Hoover (2014) Ohio achievement tests fail to meet the accepted mathematical standards for test validity, yet instead of reducing testing the state continues to roll out more tests and to write legislation that ties these tests to teacher evaluations.

 My frustrations with testing and my own children were exacerbated by this legislation and policies that were directly impacting my profession as a high school social studies teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. Due to Ohio Revised Codes written by legislators, not educators,  like ORC 3311.80 and 3319.112, Cleveland teachers are to receive an Effectiveness Rating each year 50% of which is based on student test scores. However, no one knew what tests or which scores were going to comprise that 50% for every subject. Some teachers were exempt from the testing portion of scores because they were foreign language teachers or digital media teachers and there were no tests available. Some teachers had tests that were already being used to measure academic progress and those were continued in addition to other tests. Unfortunately for the rest of us, a scramble by administrators working at the board of education, and a hustle by salespeople representing test companies resulted in numbers that were supposed to determine my effectiveness as an educator, yet had nearly no directly attributable teacher data that linked the students’ performance on the tests to my instruction.

 

Fifteen percent of my Effectiveness Rating in Ohio was based on students’ scores on the social studies portion of the tenth grade Ohio Graduation Test (OGT). The test is based on 9th and 10th grade curriculum that is sequenced across an entire school year which ends in May, yet the test was given the 2nd week of March. Students were not only tested on items that they were supposed to learn two months after the test according to state and district curriculum guidelines, but they were also tested on material that they should have learned in 9th grade. I had no contact with these students their ninth grade year, but I was held accountable for the curriculum and rated according to their performance. The other 35% percent of the test portion effectiveness rating was unknown to me until immediately after students had completed OGT testing in March. At that time, I received an email from our building test coordinator that we had to administer a U.S. Studies end of course exam by April 9th. The district had purchased an exam from QualCore and I was emailed the blueprint for it. Content on nearly half the test did not match what the district and state require me to teach, or it was content I had not been able to teach yet because testing and inclement weather days took away from instructional time. Plus, in April I still had two months of teaching left to do when this “end of the course” exam was to be administered. Were the district and state trying to prove that students do not know what they are not taught? Well dear readers, even that data was not effectively produced.

 

After contemplating my seemingly hopeless situation during sleepless nights and anxiety driven days, I considered what I would want a teacher to do if my son was in her class. I knew the fifty percent of my evaluation that was based on observations and evidence throughout the school year would contain accomplished and skilled ratings because I am a certified evaluator for the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System as part of my role as a mentor for new or struggling educators in our district. So, on the morning of April 7th, 2014 I stood before my students as they fidgeted all lined up again in their testing rows, and asked them if they trusted me. It took this group longer than most to figure out that I expected a lot, but that it was because I was on their side. One young lady who worked diligently to overcome the special education and English language learner labels that clung to her responded that she did until she “walked in today and found out about this test.”  I sighed and gave her a sad smile as I asked her not to give up on me yet because I would never give up on any of them. Once test materials were distributed and the test coordinator stepped out of the room, I interrupted the silence and asked for the students’ attention. They looked up warily with grimaces and disappointment laden eyes. I explained to them that I had not warned them about the test because I only found out about it a couple weeks ago and that I had to figure out how I was going to approach it. One option was to try to cram test knowledge into them that they could then regurgitate. Another possibility was that we could work on our collaborative project that integrated technology, asked them to solve a problem, and provided opportunities for critical thinking, and presentations. The project’s question was: How can WWI be taught to students in a way that engages and informs them? I scaffolded lessons and collaborated with the 9th grade social studies teacher to have my students create mini lessons for workshops with his students. I figured it was never too early to start building some empathy for teachers, and my students were excited about the opportunity to assist their younger counterparts.

 

When the students realized they had spent two weeks on a project, not test cramming, their faces began to soften.  I further explained that the test they were taking meant nothing to me or to them. I work hard to make sure my students feel successful. I was not about to let the incompetence of others tear them down. I asked them to pick their favorite lettered circles, color them in with their number two pencils, and put their heads down for a nap. Naps are actually better supported by research to improve learning than standardized tests. Although relieved, some students expressed concern about how their performance would reflect on me. I told them not to worry, and with veiled angst stated to them that my job was secure. Some students wrote comments above where they had to sign their names on the answer booklet expressing their distaste with testing and how it is used in connection with teacher ratings.The test coordinator made them erase those, but that moment of social protest said more to me about what they learned in U.S. History than any of the answers they could have bubbled in for another standardized test.

 

At the end of the school year all the teachers with test scores tied to their evaluations received notification that we could check our final Effectiveness Rating online. According to the test data gathered by the district and state, my students “met expectations.” I was never told what the expectation for the QualCore vendor assessment that amounted to 35% of my score was, or what the results of the test were. My principal informed me that even though the OGT scores for my students were ten percent higher than the district average, and my observation scores were weighted more in the accomplished categories than in the skilled, she could not give me a composite rating of “Accomplished” because of the test scores, and she even moved me from a few accomplished marks to skilled on the domain chart, even though evidence met the accomplished criteria on the rubric. However, other teachers in the building without test score data as part of their Effectiveness Rating received composite ratings of “Accomplished” and were given raises this year. The fact that a formal analysis of Ohio’s tests and the linking of those tests to teacher effectiveness has failed to meet mathematical validity or a degree of acceptable integrity makes this entire system even more egregious and frustrating.

 

On the verge of resigning from teaching entirely, and firmly resolved to never go through another experience like the one I had last year, I accepted a position at our county juvenile detention facility where test scores are not tied to evaluations, and for about a $20,000/year pay cut. As a single mother of two sons in college and two at home who does not receive court ordered child support, the financial effects have not been felt lightly by any of us. I also left an incredibly talented staff of colleagues and friends in a new and innovative educational network that I believe in and was passionate about. However, the positive impact that this new position has had on me professionally and personally is  invaluable. Those are stories for another time though.

 

During an exit ticket reflection at the end of class one day this year a young man wrote that he would “like to get better at thinking.” What an incredible and enlightening concept, I thought. He does not want to get better at memorizing test answers. He wants to learn and to be better at learning. Do you think he can imagine the source of inspiration that his statement is for an educator? How can I convince politicians and misinformed educational reformers that it is students, not poorly construed, meaningless test data, who motivate us to be better teachers? Most importantly, how can I convince those reformers and politicians that this young man is on to something? Metacognition and getting better at thinking when formulating education policy might just be the first step in ending the current insanity.


Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith considers herself an educational ninja warrior and queen advocate for the students who need the best educators the most. She is featured in an ASCD documentary about project based learning, was interviewed by NPR’s Mindshift for an article about happiness in schools, has an online petition with over 2100 signatures to stop the testing that hurts students and teachers at Stop hurting students and punishing good teachers, has to shrink her resumé to an unreadable font in order to place all of her experiences and skills on it, and always assumes that people’s intentions are positive.