I Am Not an Anti-test Nazi
by Debbie Wei on Feb 13 2009
I am not an anti- test-Nazi. I think standardized tests can give you some useful information. But at what cost? And what kind of information? And how much should it be weighed in an overall picture of assessment?
When you really look at the tests and ask some questions like a group in California called Teachers for Social Justice asks, it makes you really wonder why these tests are given so much weight.
The tests are costly to us. I’m not referring to the financial costs – I’ll save that for another blog. I’m talking about the cost to education as an art, as something with higher purpose and with students at the center.
Take a look at the School district’s website. They have a countdown to the PSSA’s document that begins 37 days before the tests – all geared toward test prep.
So in addition to the six days of testing, add the 37 countdown days where the focus is on what is going to be on the test and we’re up to 42 days. Add in the days spent on benchmark testing and review of benchmark concepts – all geared to test what will appear on the PSSA and you’ve got another six or so days added on….48 days.
I have no idea how to count how many days in addition teachers’ lessons are dictated by this year’s assessment anchors. Nor do I know how much professional development time has been spent on teaching teachers about testing. So let’s just stay with the 48 days. A minimum of 48 out of 180 days all spent on preparing for, monitoring progress toward, and taking a six-day test. That’s 38% of the school year. Of every school year from 3rd grade on out.
I don’t blame the District. They are simply following the marching orders of the state. I do blame weak-minded politicians who have never taught, don’t know anything about brain research, and certainly have no idea what the art of teaching entails. I do blame the Pennsylvania Department of Education for not following in the footsteps of the states who recognize the dangers in putting too much weight on a single test are testing the waters (no pun intended) for use of more authentic assessments as a way to show progress.
And what about FACTS? We don’t have a 37 day countdown or 6 week benchmarks. We do feel the stress of the test, however. This year, we are taking precious instructional time away from students to administer practice tests. The data will be helpful so we know which parts of the test we need to develop students’ skills for. It’s more testing depending on what grade you’re in or if you’re ESL. Check out the testing calendar and God help our 8th graders.
But ironically, we are doing the practice tests this year so that we can teach to the test enough to make AYP so we can be “safe.” We made AYP last year, and if we do it again, we won’t be mandated to take the practice tests throughout the year. If we don’t make AYP, we will be mandated to give these practice tests at regular intervals.
Sure, these benchmarks give us some information. Sometimes, our teachers discover that the class didn’t quite understand a concept. Or maybe they didn’t understand the one particular question that covers that topic on the benchmark test. More often, this is what happens. A class may totally bomb on the graphing portion of a math test, but the teacher knows that it isn’t a concept she is covering until two weeks later – well before the big test. Did we really need to take the time to give a benchmark test three months before the actual test to find out our kids don’t know material that the teacher hasn’t taught yet but fully intends to? The information that we get from these tests is no different than what teachers can already see in their classroom and in other assessments that we administer.
To keep on top of all the requirements embedded in the NCLB testing mandates, we have a full time “data master.” If you want to know why we need someone full time to deal with this, just check out the state’s websites on accountability and assessment. Unless you spend a whole lot of time studying this stuff, I guarantee you won’t understand it all.
But Max, our data master, does more than the PSSA. He breaks down data like which race and ethnic groups are being referred to CSAP (Comprehensive Student Assistance Program) so we can monitor ourselves around issues of equity. He designs surveys for our teachers and students. (4 = strongly agree, 1 = strongly disagree: “I feel like my culture is respected at this school.”). So we do use data to make decisions. But much of the data we use doesn’t “count” in weighing whether or not we’re a “good” school.
In spite of the tests, we will continue to look at our children as whole human beings, our school as a fragile community – each member of the school a contributor to the unique biodiversity that creates a space for compassion, caring, and yes, learning. We will continue as well to work toward academic excellence. And we’ll try like hell to resist the siren call of “test prep as teaching.” So wish us luck this year on the tests.