Why Tests Fail
In April, public school students in grades 3 through 8 will take Common Core ELA (English Language Arts) and mathematics tests required by the New York State Testing Program. The testing occurs April 14 through 16 for ELA and April 22 through 24 for math.
Many parents have questions about these exams, and there has been a great deal of debate regarding their merit. But the concerns are not just about the tests; it’s the year-round impact of the increased emphasis on testing. There has been an ongoing focus in the media regarding the idea that American schools are failing when compared with other nations. Both the No Child Left Behind law and Race to the Top educational competition grants are built on this false narrative. This misguided, test-driven thinking has dominated the U.S. public education system for the past two decades and ultimately has led to our current predicament.
On international tests, American students don’t appear to do very well, but the truth is they never have—not since 1964 when the first such test was completed. The United States was never a world leader on these international tests and its students’ scores have typically been at the median or even lower. During these years, the U.S. often outperformed other nations in more essential areas, such as overall economy and technological advances. Perhaps most important to note is that these test scores are not even a valid predictor of economic prosperity or of global competitiveness.
What are often overlooked in these comparisons are factors such as poverty. When poverty is taken into consideration, American students rate quite favorably on international comparisons. In fact, in schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced lunch, U.S. students were No. 2 on the international ranking for reading.
Poverty is a problem, not our schools. Among the nations taking these international tests, we have the highest rate of child poverty. There is always room for improvement in the education system, but we are actually seeing a decline in performance as a result of new reform policies and increased testing.
Most agree that there is a role for standardized tests—if they are limited in duration and frequency, developmentally appropriate, and provide useful feedback for classroom instruction. New York state tests fail to meet these standards and are misused for school accountability purposes.
In addition, there really is no meaningful benefit for students. The tests don’t affect their report cards or grade placement. Unfortunately, many students will still feel a sense of pressure and stress surrounding the tests. Some might argue that students need to learn how to take this type of test and handle the anxiety that might accompany it. However, there are probably better ways to accomplish this goal. Some high-performing countries wait until high school before administering standardized tests and instead focus on developing life skills.
The excessive focus on testing also has had negative effects on the quality of education. The state tests have narrowed the curriculum. Subjects such as science, social studies, art and music get short shrift. In elementary schools, children are being required to perform tasks that are developmentally inappropriate, and there is less time for recess, unstructured play and physical education. Less time for creative learning, critical thinking and social-emotional skills. Limited funds are funneled away from direct resources for students. Current policies actually stifle and undermine the necessary and notably American traits of imagination, creativity and innovation that make this country a leader in so many ways.
Another drawback is that results of state tests are not available to teachers and parents until the student has already started the next grade. Clearly individual feedback about a child’s strengths and challenges is not being provided. Teachers know our kids; they are working with them throughout the school year and using assessments that are already completed in the classroom. Yet another significant problem is the inappropriateness of tests given to English language learners and special education students.
Unfortunately, state test scores are used inappropriately to evaluate your child’s teachers. Using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it. There is no evidence that the tests produce better teachers or better education. Studies find that teachers account for only a small percentage of the variability in test scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control. Doing well in school depends on family and community support, student motivation, adequate resources, appropriate class sizes, experienced teachers and students who arrive to school healthy, well-fed and cared for.
Education is not a race. It is about the growth and development of every child. It’s about having the opportunity to develop one’s abilities and pursue one’s passions. We have a natural love for learning, and education should provide an environment that is engaging, challenging, motivating, safe and joyful.
So when it comes to annual New York state testing, it’s not just about the test. It is about the larger picture of public education.
Most students will take the annual tests, and we should encourage them to do their best. However, we shouldn’t overemphasize them. If your child is nervous about the tests, talk to him and reassure him.
Children should put forth their best efforts, but tell them that they are not expected to know all the answers. Relaxation, mindfulness or other approaches might also help.
Some parents will choose to refuse state tests. There are different reasons some parents opt out, but the main reason is to bring change to a system that is failing our children. It is essential that parents understand they have a voice in the future of their child’s education. Talk to teachers and principals about the current state of education, attend a school board meeting, or call or write your local and state legislator.
Testing may always be a part of our public education system, but that doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice the quality of education or the development of the whole child.
Michael Gilbert, Psy.D., is a school psychologist with the Syracuse City School District and founder of the non-profit It’s About Childhood & Family, Inc. He has worked in a variety of settings with children and families for the past 25 years. He lives with his wife and two daughters in DeWitt.
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