Ask anyone who has taught college for more than 20 years about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other education reforms based on high-stakes testing, and you’ll probably get the same response over and over again: these practices have ruined education in the United States. By linking education funding to test results, we have created a system that both teaches to the test and leads to cases of panic-driven corruption such as the Atlanta cheating scandal, in which that city’s educators were so worried about losing funding due to low student scores that they changed test results.
Even former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who once led the drive to institute NCLB, has reversed course and now opposes both high-stakes testing and the Race to the Top program, which evolved from NCLB. She argues that,
“We are destroying our education system, blowing it up by these stupid policies. And handing the schools in low-income neighborhoods over to private entrepreneurs does not, in itself, improve them. There’s plenty of evidence by now that the kids in those schools do no better, and it’s simply a way of avoiding their public responsibility to provide good education.”
The simple fact is that testing is not necessarily the best indicator of what kinds of knowledge and abilities a student has actually assimilated. Instead, high-stakes testing has merely eliminated opportunities for teachers to teach students to think creatively and independently enough to tackle higher levels of learning. If I’ve had one functionally-illiterate student in my classes for the past 10 years, I’ve had one thousand.
That was not the case when I started teaching at a very poor school over 20 years ago, where I could expect that even the more recently mainstreamed special needs students could read. Today, I cannot assume even rudimentary literacy among my college students, despite all of them having passed the state-mandated testing requirements to graduate from high school. And yet, colleges and their faculty members are continually criticized for not providing a quality education, even though the problems start long before students walk through our classroom doors.
Thankfully, the movement against high-stakes testing is gaining ground, as more states choose the “opt-out” option and either reject NCLB funds or apply for federal waivers that allow them to enact their own reforms. Here are some examples of the most recent actions against high-stakes testing:
- The Broward County School District in Florida unanimously passed a resolution on May 30 against the use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to evaluate teachers, students, and schools. Said one board member, when reflecting on the high rates of absenteeism on test dates and the loss of skills and subjects not covered by the test, “This is destroying public education, destroying the teaching profession and destroying children. The classroom should be fun. Kids should be excited about learning and not be afraid they’re going to be punished for one test.”
- The National Center for Fair and Open Testing recently published a national Resolution on High-Stakes Testing that it urges organizations and schools to adopt. The Resolution calls for a federal overhaul of education policy and reduction in testing requirements and among its many points, argues that “the overreliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability systems is undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators’ efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences,” that “standardized testing is an inadequate and often unreliable measure of both student learning and educator effectiveness,” and “the over-emphasis on standardized testing has caused considerable collateral damage in too many schools, including narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing love of learning, pushing students out of school, driving excellent teachers out of the profession, and undermining school climate.”
- New York City parents and education critics raised the alarm against “absurd questions” on the eighth grade state English exam after learning about “The Pineapple and the Hare,” in which students were asked to evaluate a nonsensical story by answering even more nonsensical questions. The student answers to the questions were dropped from the exam results, and Pearson, which created the test, is now under fire. One writer has referred to the story as “the pineapple that ate Pearson.”
- School boards and administrators in Georgia and Texas have initiated petitions protesting the emphasis on testing as the only method of evaluation and asking their state governments to re-think the policies.
- States around the nation applied for and received NCLB waivers following President Obama’s February 2012 decision to begin granting waivers when Republican obstruction in Congress caused a delay in the passage of any reform legislation at all. The White House authorizes waivers under the following conditions: “To get flexibility from NCLB, states must adopt and have a plan to implement college and career-ready standards. They must also create comprehensive systems of teacher and principal development, evaluation and support that include factors beyond test scores, such as principal observation, peer review, student work, or parent and student feedback.” To date, a majority of states have applied for the waivers.
These five examples of resistance to high-stakes testing show that educators, administrators, parents and students are flexing their muscles and rebelling against years of ineffective policies that, no matter how well intentioned, did not result in the anticipated improvements to American education, and in fact seem to have made things worse.
To my mind, the fact that I cannot assume literacy among all the college students in my courses proves that something is very, very wrong with our K-12 education system. Colleges have tried to meet the need for remedial courses, but that has resulted in lower graduation rates and higher costs for students. Given this, it has been frustrating to read criticisms of college professors and attacks on the quality of a college education. We can only work with the raw material that comes to us from the K-12 system. Until that system is repaired, we will continue to see low graduation and retention rates.
What is your opinion of high-stakes testing? Have you participated in any acts of resistance against it? Share your stories here!