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Pencils Down: It's time to rethink tests

By Samuel Reed III on Oct 30, 2012 12:44 PM

Rethinking Schools takes on high-stakes testing

How reliable are tests in measuring what really matters for 21st-century learning? And should high-stakes tests really be used as a punitive evaluation of teacher quality? With all the controversy surrounding standardized tests and cheating, it’s time for teachers, parents, districts and policymakers to consider alternatives. Pencils Down, an anthology that takes a stance against high-stakes testing, may just be the book to offer those alternatives.  

The editors of Pencils Down, published by the education nonprofit group Rethinking Schools, have culled together articles that not only critique the impact of high-stakes testing, but offer viable options for resisting and providing visionary forms of assessment that are authentic, fair, and democratic.   

In the introduction, the editors confront “the tsunami of high-stakes testing and accountability” and the “free market” education that reduces teachers and teaching to test scores. The refrain reverberates for anyone in the education trenches -- parents, students, teachers, principals, District officials:

Now, students = test scores.

Now, teachers = test scores.

Now, teaching = test scores.

Now, learning = test scores.

Now, education = test scores.

The authors in Pencils Down take a clear position against standardized tests, arguing against expanding charter schools, busting unions, merit pay, and other popular free-market education policies. This hard-hitting anthology may rail against the high-stakes test, but that doesn’t mean the writers are opposed to assessment or accountability. Many of the articles, essays, and analyses in this collection demonstrate that teaching and learning are more complex than numbers. Pencils Down works to demystify, for readers ranging from teachers to parents at the PTA meeting, the Holy Grail of high-stakes testing.

The first four sections -- “Testing, Testing 1,2,3,” “Testing Kids,” “Testing Teaching,” and “Testing the Test” -- present critical questions, narratives, and perspectives on the impact that standardized tests have on students, teachers, and classrooms throughout the country. Written in a way that is accessible to both non-educators and educators, the contributions are diverse, including questions and answers about standardized tests, the historical contextualization of assessments as a civil rights issue, strategies to assess what matters, and poignant tales of teachers’ struggles.

In “About Those Tests I Gave You • An Open Letter to My Students” Ruth Ann Dandrea apologizes for the “perpetual and petty testing that has become a fungus on the foot of public education.” Todd Farley’s contribution, “A Test Scorer’s Lament,” invites readers into the “lab” of scoring standardized tests. If scoring open-ended essay prompts is scientifically based research, he writes, “then I’m Dr. Frankenstein.” 

Going beyond critiquing and lamenting the impact of tests, the final sections of Pencils Down -- “Resisting and Responding to High-Stakes Testing” and "Beyond High-Stakes, Standardized Testing” -- offer approaches for creatively complying with or pushing back against testing mandates.

In “’High-Stakes Harm,” Rethinking Schools editors Linda Christensen and Wayne Au explore how teachers can retain a critical stance on assessment while preparing students to take mandated tests. She encourages students to critically examine tests and even construct their own test, using the culture, content and vocabulary used in local communities.   

Peggy Robertson, a former schoolteacher and current administrator for the United Opt Out National campaign, describes a movement taking root to stop the harmful effects of extensive standardized testing. She also includes an Opting Students Out of State Test letter template for parents to petition schools to exclude students from taking standardized tests. 

So, what are the alternatives to inaction? More pressure that leads to a culture of cheating? The misuse of student scores to evaluate teacher effectiveness? Assessments that do not prepare our youth for 21st-century job skills?

Rethinking Schools should be commended for taking on tests. Pencils Down is a must-read for anyone concerned about providing students with assessments that really matter. 

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Comments (13)

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 30, 2012 3:41 pm
Pushing back against standardized testing will be an uphill battle because of the vested interests of companies such as Pearson and ETS. Still, testing and assessment are crucial parts of education. Taking tests helps people retain information because people are required to retrieve information. Teachers have been using curriculum based measures and progress monitoring instruments for decades. These types of assessments INFORM teaching. However, standardized tests like the PSSA have limited utility for informing teaching in the classroom because the results don't come out after the school year is over. Then add cheating to the mix and the value of the PSSAs diminishes further.
Submitted by Samuel Reed III on October 30, 2012 3:14 pm

Education Grad Student,

Thank you; you always add thoughtful comments. You are so correct about" being an uphill battle."  As I note in the review the Pencils Downs is not opposed to assessment. I think teachers, parents and students need to be the major players in "reforming" how tests and assessments broadens not narrows the curriculum.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 30, 2012 4:59 pm
Sam--The testing game is all about making money and to a degree, always has been. The fight now is against this hostile takeover of Urban Ed. by the 1% types who see easy money coming their way from the backs of inner city kids, about whom they don't give a rat's ass. They all better hope there is no God and WE better forge a much more unified force against them and quickly. Notice how they focus on the poor so can't defend themselves? They're bullies and we all know how to deal with bullies. By the way, Obama has been a huge disappointment as is Nutter and the PFT.
Submitted by Kathleen Melville (not verified) on October 30, 2012 6:12 pm
Sounds like this book offers a host of reasons for why teachers need to speak out. As teachers, we know how little standardized tests contribute to real learning, and we also know how to use other methods to assess our students. Already, PA has passed a bill that will assess teachers on the basis of test scores. We've seen that this path is costly (take a look at how much money we spend on paying the corporations that write and grade tests) and that it can lead to cheating and corruption. When will we have the courage to strike out on a different path? Time to start speaking up and pushing back - as advocates for our fellow teachers and for our kids.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on October 30, 2012 6:20 pm
It's funny: Just a few days ago I stumbled across one of my favorite books ever on reading evaluation and measurement. It was falling apart, yellowed and crinkly. It was the classic by Roger Farr and Robert F. Carey: READING What can be measured? It is the best book I ever read about the measurement of reading ability and the appropriate use of reading tests. What is happening today is what we referred to as a "misuse of standardized tests." It is a much needed discussion and I thank you Rethinking Schools. I will read your book and of course, thanks to Sam for leading the discussion. The validity and reliability of the reading tests being used is a crucial and critical issue and we all should have a thorough understanding of what they measure and do not measure. What we really need is a credible system of student assessment which is used in pedagogically sound ways. We do not have that now.
Submitted by Sydney Coffin (not verified) on October 30, 2012 9:22 pm
I think as conscientious teachers we should always assess the assessments and determine if the asking of the questions further promotes learning or detracts from it. If the goal of education is to create an informed citizenry (and I believe it is) then the medium is the message: if all we ask our students to do is choose from 4 possible answers and use a pencil to scrawl in a dot, what are they learning? If they are encouraged to respond to random bits of essays and other texts, without connective or contextual information, what are they being taught? The conversation around testing and how we evaluate learning can be examined much more broadly by teachers (and students, and parents, and communities as a whole) than to simply accept that the standard is acceptable and the mundane unavoidable.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on October 31, 2012 6:19 pm
Sydney, Measuring the knowledge of young students based on a paper-and-pencil or computer-based multiple choice test is a very limited assessment. Even with open-ended questions, these tests provide a limited picture of student learning. There need to be more ways of measuring how much students know, such as through criterion-referenced reading tests, curriculum based measures, class and homework assignments, assessments of progress toward IEP goals, student self-evaluations, and student evaluations of teachers. For people who want to make a one-size-fits-all model for teaching, making comparisons of teachers based on a smorgasbord of assessments is messy and either impossible or incredibly expensive to do. This is especially true given the differences within and among schools and school districts with regard to race/ethnicity, class, income, primary language, and so forth. The reality is that the processes of teaching and learning do not fit into nice tidy boxes. Both objective and subjective measures are necessary for making an accurate picture. Read an IEP and one will see that the information comes from both standardized assessments as well as interviews with parents/caregivers, teachers, and other professionals. We should be evaluating students in a multimodal manner, not just with one test.
Submitted by Affordable Private school (not verified) on October 31, 2012 1:21 am
Tests are an essential part of education. Tests help in revising the topics which children have learnt in their classes. It decreases the burden of learning full course in one shot.
Submitted by Seth Kulick on October 31, 2012 11:52 am
Thanks Sam, very nice piece. I basically agree with most of the comments above, and I find these two particularly interesting: "The testing game is all about making money and to a degree, always has been." "if all we ask our students to do is choose from 4 possible answers and use a pencil to scrawl in a dot, what are they learning?" I've read a decent amount about the education so-called "reform" movement, and it's still not really clear to me where this is coming from and why. The players are more or less clear, but the motivation seems to me harder to pin down. I agree that to some extent it's about money, and more generally the "reform" movement is a profiteering scheme but is that all there is to it? They *are* learning something with the obsession with these tests - they're learning discipline. To what extent is this connected to the types of jobs that will be available for these students? To some extent the same thing can be said about excessive and meaningless homework: "Excessive homework teaches compliance. It indoctrinates children into the notion that their time is not their own. It teaches them that free time - time to think, to play, to be - is wasted time. It trains them to think that their worth is solely based on their productivity, not their creativity." Anyway, just some thoughts. I find it a bit hard to sort out what exactly is going on, but it's clear that it's bad for education. btw, here is another piece on test scoring that mentions Todd Farley All that said, when I looked through my daughter's 5th grade "Measuring Up" book for PSSA Math, it wasn't so bad. The problem is really making such test results into the main number categorizing a student, teacher, and school. I don't comment very often these days, so I didn't want to let a comment pass without mentioning the upcoming event with the folks from the Chicago Teachers Union, which should be an excellent event.
Submitted by Henry Demby, Ed.M (not verified) on October 31, 2012 12:28 pm
What a powerful piece. A MUST READ for all educators and parents
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 31, 2012 5:10 pm
I'm so excited to read this book!!! And I want to talk about it with other educators, like the ones who have already commented, raising some really important questions. So many of us think tests don't tell the whole story. How do we communicate that to decision-makers so they listen? How do we design meaningful and rigorous alternative assessments? What are the challenges to doing so? I know there are many people who have thought about these questions. I want to read their ideas, talk to them, learn from and with them. This winter, the Teacher Action Group is launching its second round of Inquiry to Action Groups (ITAGS). These are small groups of educators (teachers, counsellors, administrators, etc.) who get together once a week for six weeks to learn together, and then create an action based on what they learned. I would LOVE to be part of an ITAG that studied standardized tests and alternative assessments. There are people organizing to change our overreliance on tests around the country. Philly should join them! Is anyone interested in taking this on? How about helping faciliatate? We already have the perfect book to read first -- thanks Sam! And Seth posted some links to follow up on.... Tomorrow (Thursday, Nov. 1st) we are having a meeting for interested ITAG facilitators. You don't have to commit to facilitating, but you could come and learn more. I'll be there, ready and eager to push forward study and action around thist topic. Anyone want to join me?
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on November 1, 2012 12:14 am
There is also a PCAPS meetings November 1st, which hopefully many will attend.
Submitted by Samuel Reed III on November 1, 2012 8:39 am


Education Grad Student, Kathleen, Rich, Sydney, Seth, Henry and others, I want to echo the previous comment about the value an ITAG could play in examining the impact standardized tests have on school communities.

I would encourage anyone of one you to consider facilitating an ITAG about standardized tests and alternative assessments.

If you want to learn more about starting an ITAG, attend the information session happening at SLA this evening. Visit the TAG Philly site to  learn more,  or leave a comment about your interest and I will reach out to you with more information. 

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