The High-Stakes Testing Culture: How We Got Here, How We Get Out

Parents across the country are joining educators in saying enough is enough – no more high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, they’re shouting it, in large numbers. Recent rallies at state capitol and opting-out protests have taken place in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Alabama and other states. Grassroots parent movements say they will protest until overtesting is curbed.

NEA leaders and members—who have been clamoring to stop the testing madness for years—are grateful parents have joined the fray. Now there’s hope that by acting together, a movement could finally end the current drill and kill testing regime.

But how did we get here? How did test scores become such a driving force in public education?

Monty Neill is the executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which focuses on assessment reform, addressing standardized test quality, responsible uses of test and assessment results, and the development of educationally beneficial assessments.

NEA Today recently spoke with Neill about how the nation’s obsession with testing grew to such vast proportions, better ways to assess students, and how educators and parents can work together to help bring the high-stakes era to an end.

What’s the average time spent on testing in schools around the country?

No one knows for sure the average time students spend on test prep. A recent survey of the Colorado Education Association found that teachers spend 30 percent of their time on prep and testing. It’s not uncommon for districts to test their students ten times a year. Some districts have more than 30 tests a year in one grade. Pittsburgh has 35 tests in grade four, with nearly as many in some other grades. Chicago had 14 mandated tests for kindergarteners, and nearly as many in grades one and two.
How do tests breed more tests?

The No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) required schools to test students for proficiency each year in reading and math in grades 3–8, then once during high school. The objective was to have all students proficient by 2014, and there were strict penalties for not meeting these and other, often unattainable, goals. Fears of low test scores and NCLB sanctions fueled the testing explosion. States and districts conducted more tests to use as test preparation and predictors. If students didn’t do well on the predictor local tests, schools would intervene with more prep and more practice tests to raise the scores of mandated federal test. Test prep has become a very large part of the school year, especially in low-income communities where many students perform poorly on the tests.

For too many low-income students of color, school means standardized tests that they know they won’t do well on. It lowers self-esteem, which impacts concentration and learning and, therefore, lowers test scores.

Teachers are often blamed for low test scores, when in fact the tests are what lead to bad teaching. Can you explain how this happens?

Drill and kill produces short-term increase in test scores, but it doesn’t boost scores in the long run because there’s no foundation to build on. When I ran track and field in high school, I’d eat a candy bar or tablespoon of honey for that boost of energy I needed for a race. But you can’t exist on sugar fixes and carbohydrates because they don’t provide the nutritional foundation you need to build muscle and fitness for the long term. Teachers have to give students sugar and carb fixes during test prep —that’s the drill and kill—so they can do well on the tests, but any knowledge gain is almost instantly burned off and forgotten once the test is over, and very little real academic progress is made for the long term.

Testing also eliminates the richness of the curriculum, eliminating subjects like art, music, even social studies, are cut so that more time can be spent on drills in reading and math. We hear from college professors that more and more students don’t have the critical thinking necessary for college level courses. They just want to know what the right answer is. After so many years of multiple choice tests where only one answer can be correct, they don’t understand that there might be more than one good answer, or that it could change under difference circumstances.

How has tying teacher evaluations to test scores increased the testing mania?

First, NCLB used tests to judge schools, with low-performing schools suffering strict sanctions that could close the school, fire the staff, or turn it into a charter with private control. Now, 43 states have been given NCLB waivers. But in exchange for those waivers, which free them from the pressure of school sanctions, test scores are used to hold individual educators accountable.

Take Action: Support the Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act
This bill brings commonsense reform to the over-testing currently required by NCLB and opens the door to a better system of accountability that puts student learning at the forefront. The bill would reduce the number of federally mandated statewide math and reading tests from 14 to six.

In some states with NCLB waivers, test scores comprise 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. There are states, including Tennessee and Florida, where the Tennessee Education Association and the Florida Education Association have turned to litigation to put an end to the testing madness. In some parts of the country, every teacher in every grade and subject must be evaluated by test scores, so now schools are giving standardized tests in physical education, art, even welding.

Not surprisingly, when a teacher’s livelihood and reputation are at risk, she is going to pay a lot more time and attention on test preparation. Again, the tests breed more tests with practice tests and test preparation for the big test.

Value-added models (VAMs) were developed to supposedly answer the “one-size-does-not-fit-all” problem and account for differences in test scores among special education, English language learners, and low-income students. But the American Statistical Association proved the models don’t work. Why are they still used by districts?

In essence, it’s an admission of failure. We don’t really expect this country to address the causes and consequences of poverty, so instead we hold the schools accountable. Certainly education plays an enormous role in lifting people out of poverty, but to hold them solely accountable for the impact poverty has on current students—and to do so using test scores and inaccurate VAMs—defeats the goal.

What does good assessment look like?

Assessment does not mean test. The best way to assess students is to look at their ongoing work rather than a snapshot from a standardized test. Students produce lots of work and it tells you a lot about their progress and what they’re being taught.

For example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium includes 39 public schools where students produce extended tasks in language arts, math, science and history. They produce a literary analytic paper, a social history research paper, an extended math problem, and a science lab or research project. While the particular work each student does is determined by the student and teacher, the scoring process is the same across the schools. It’s done by committees that include outside experts and students must orally defend their projects. The consortium schools use a common scoring guide, and samples are re-scored independently to ensure consistency across schools.

The schools are demographically similar to the entire New York City student body, and their graduation rates are significantly higher for English language learners, students of color and students with disabilities. Assessment is more accurate than an NCLB test because it includes a wider range of what the students can do. The assessing is done by the teacher, and it’s done over time. It also shows how assessment can lead to a more positive response of assistance, not punishment. This is where we should be—in a positive cycle where assessment plays an appropriate role, not a detrimental, punitive role.

Why are more parents joining the fight against testing?

Parents see kids who are bored, frustrated, and stressed. At the dinner table, they ask their kids what they did that day, and hear, “We had another test. It was really boring.” Parents don’t want their kids educated in this manner.

Last spring, parents joined the teacher boycott in Seattle known as Scrap the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress test). They won a major battle, and that made a real difference to people’s spirits—they realized it’s possible to wage and win fights against the testing regime. Now there are grassroots anti-testing campaigns taking place all over the country.

Now that there’s a movement, how will it impact Common Core testing?

The new Common Core tests are still mostly standardized tests. There are some open ended questions, and there are some fairly good tasks, but assessment and education experts believe that while the Common Core tests are a bit better at accurately measuring student progress, they don’t represent the major change the country needs in student assessment. What that means is hundreds of millions of dollars — not to mention huge amounts of angst and fighting — will be spent in order to get tests that are just marginally better. (See NEA’s position on course correction for the Common Core)

We still need to advocate for assessments that include the ongoing portfolio of student work. That is still possible with the Common Core if the assessments continue to evolve. Lots of teachers saw the Common Core as an opportunity for much deeper teaching, and the standards clearly opened the door. The fear is that the current tests are going to slam that door shut because they’re so narrowly construed and the stakes are still too high. We must reduce the impact of the Common Core tests, take the weight off them, and don’t conduct them in every grade. Looking at grade spans is what to do. We must go back to local and state assessments that test students only once per grade span: usually, once in grades 3–5, once in grades 6–9 and once in grades 10–12.

What can parents and educators do now to get involved?
Contact state and local representatives to fight for legislation to end the testing regime. To reduce the number of federally mandated statewide math and reading tests form 14 to six, support the Student Testing Improvement and Accountability and join NEA and other organizations in endorsing the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing.