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Forum takes on standardized testing

By Dale Mezzacappa on May 16, 2013 11:21 AM

Two icons of the progressive education movement spoke in Philadelphia on Wednesday night to decry standardized testing and urge that a “justice-oriented framework” drive school reform instead.

“Test score gaps are used to label schools as failures without providing resources or strategies to eliminate the gap,” said Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools, an education journal and publisher.

Michelle Fine of the City University of New York (CUNY), who once taught at the University of Pennsylvania and helped drive Philadelphia’s small schools movement 20 years ago, said that high-stakes testing was “corrupting and curdling” education in New York City and elsewhere.

She called standardized testing “the scientific ink of tattooing failure on the bodies of children, teachers, and now school closings." Real change, she said, only comes when schools are “designed by educators with parent and student passion at their heart.”

Karp, a former teacher in Paterson, N.J., said that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, puts pressure on the most vulnerable children, leads to adult cheating, and inflates the profits of testing companies without providing children a real education.

Also, statistical analysis of the results is often flawed in high-stakes situations, Karp said. He cited a recent incident involving the testing giant Pearson and a test used to assign students to coveted "gifted and talented" programs in New York City.

Barely hours after he spoke, the School Reform Commission approved a three-year, $1 million contract with Pearson to develop a high-stakes teacher and principal evaluation tool.

“High-stakes tests are the credit default swaps of the education world,” Karp said. “They encourage bad behavior on the part of people in charge” while propelling the forces of inquality.

The proliferation of high-stakes tests brought on by the No Child Left Behind law in 2002 helped lead to the virtual abandonment of other strategies for educational improvement, including racial and economic integration and more services for high-poverty schools, Karp said.

“Never have schools had more tests, and never have those tests done more to block real teaching and learning,” he said.

He warned that tests related to the new Common Core standards, which have been adopted by almost all the states, will be used to “sort and label students while rationing educational opportunity and access.”

Karp said he wasn’t opposed to charter schools in principle. But the charter school movement, he said, “provides fabulous opportunities for some, but unequal access and opportunity for the many."

Plus, market-based education reform has “eroded the common ground that public education needs to survive,” he said. “Parents should be treated not just as customers seeking services, but citizens seeking rights.”

He urged a broader testing “opt-out” movement, which has begun to take hold in some cities and states, to make more room for student and parent voices and heightened transparency regarding the tests and the test companies.

Fine noted that the city pioneered the small schools movement in the early 1990s, when she was involved with the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative and several large neighborhood high schools formed small learning communities -- then called “charters.”

The movement engaged students and teachers in inquiry-based learning and raised academic expectations and standards in many neighborhood high schools. Students consigned to keyboarding courses suddenly had access to advanced math and science courses, as well as the opportunity to think deeply about social justice and other big issues.

But the movement floundered on the shoals of ambivalence on the part of both the teachers' union and the administration about "good practice" -- what Fine called a "structural betrayal" that is still evident, she said.

Real school reform must come from parents, students, and teachers and can't be commodified -- what the education reformers call “scaling up,” she said. Creating a formula and ordering schools to adopt it will not work, she said, unless there is deep community involvement and buy-in.

More than 100 people attended the forum, held at Arch Street Methodist Church in Center City and moderated by Helen Gym, who along with Karp is an editor of Rethinking Schools. Gym is also a regular contributor to the Notebook.

Rethinking Schools has published a book called Pencils Down, a collection of essays that takes on the standardized testing industry.

 

Comments (4)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on May 16, 2013 1:19 pm
Keystone tests are the best thing that ever happened to urban education on PA. We will fail them miserably but the genius kids in the suburbs where all the kids are above average aren't smart enough to pass them either. When the little genius of the better suburban schools start failing there will be an uproar that the politicians will listen to. Now when poor Urban kids fail no one cares because that is what is expected of them.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 16, 2013 2:35 pm
I agree Poogie. Just like the austerity budget cutting counselors and secretaries from all schools offers a possibility of one public school system working together for its very survival. Yes I know, charters are public too, or not, or maybe. Who knows????? Don't worry, when this all levels out they will be angry too- likely a few years down the road. They will want to unionize (as they already are beginning) and they will decry the lack of funds. So much will be lost and an idea of an equitable public school system till be born. Now there's an idea!!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 17, 2013 5:09 am
The progressive education movement has contributed to the failure of urban schools since the 70's. Kids need standards and structure, especially poor kids. Focusing on Rights without responsibilities is a proven recipe for chaos. Whatever problems we might have with testing, letting these idiots run things is a proven disaster.
Submitted by ionica (not verified) on July 22, 2014 10:52 am

I think standardized testing is good. I don't see why schools can't reach the same level. They should all have to try to get the best results possible. There are no excuses for no schools. unelte profesionale

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