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Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Weighing the Cattle


Weighing the Cattle

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Like many of our colleagues throughout the nation, we're doing "high stakes" testing in New York state this year. This is not to be confused with the kind of testing we have done in the past, which, while not specifically designated "low-stakes testing," had other descriptors: minimum competency, program evaluation, and testing for mastery, to name a few. I do not know where the traditional state regents' exams fall, but they seem now to be someplace between low stakes and high stakes. Perhaps they are "medium stakes" testing.

There was some confusion over this year's first-ever English-language-arts test for New York's 4th graders, a test labeled "high stakes." The test required children to read several passages, some of which, it turned out, had been taken from a reading series in use by various schools, resulting in claims that children in those districts had an unfair advantage. Some schools did not receive the tests on time. The test was scheduled in January, and weather-related school closings prohibited other schools from administering the tests on the specific days designated by the state.

Even without these problems, 4th grade teachers were understandably anxious about how their children would perform. However, the state education department reminded everyone that because the test had never been given before, it would be used primarily to provide "baseline" information for future years. This is not exactly how things turned out.

Instead, when the test results were released in late spring, we learned what "high stakes" really meant. In the language of the commissioner of education, it meant that only 48 percent of 4th graders were "achieving New York's higher learning standards in English." In the language of reporters and anchorpersons, it meant that over half the children in the state "failed."

Of course, the performance of children in one district was compared in the newspaper and on television with the performance of children in other districts. The commissioner, in a rapid-response evaluation of the test results, suggested that children who failed this test should either go to summer school or be retained. Thus, an individual child would be judged by performance on a single test without considering what else he or she had done up to this point or could do for the remainder of the year. (This use of test results is akin to using the snapshot that appears on a driver's license as a valid assessment of an individual's attractiveness, Syracuse University Professor Kelly Chandler notes.)

Administrators whose schools were at the top of lists published in local newspapers sighed in relief, and in what can only be called a moment of weakness, gave interviews to reporters, opining about the reasons why their children were successful, heedless of the possibility that their scores could be a one-time phenomenon. Administrators of schools at the bottom of the lists looked for ways to explain what happened without blaming anyone outright--parents, teachers, or the children themselves.

Frankly, I think we should have the courage to put the blame where it belongs: on the test itself. It is hard to believe that New York state has evolved into a kind of perverse Lake Wobegon, where most of the children are below average.

When over 50 percent of our children fail to make the grade, we have to ask: Do standards for 4th grade work exist in some absolute universe outside the realm of realistic expectations for children? Were they written on stone tablets and handed down from a mountain? Or was this just one more test to show that yes, indeed, there is a correlation between high-income districts and high scores on tests?

In June, these same 4th graders endured the new state math tests. My guess is that give or take a few points, the results will be the same. I am wondering if the children who "fail" the math tests as well will be required to repeat 4th grade twice.

The idea that schools are not or have not been accountable has become a modern myth.

Unfortunately, the new 4th grade tests are just the tip of the iceberg. We have similar new tests at 8th grade. This year, high school juniors took the new, six-hour English exam. And our current 8th graders will be required to pass five state exams before they can receive a high school diploma.

All of this testing, of course, has required hours and hours of teacher time away from the classroom, so that they could be trained to score the new tests. Then, of course, there is the scoring time itself. We have had more substitute teachers in my district this year than in any other year in recent memory. I am wondering what kind of effect this phenomenon will have on student achievement, not to mention the additional cost.

A major rationale for all this testing is that it will force schools to be "accountable." The idea that schools are not or have not been accountable has become a modern myth, in the same category as the one about the cat in the microwave. If enough people repeat the story, it takes on a life of its own. How did the policymakers learn to read? Where were they prepared for college? And doesn't accountability work both ways? What kind of test labels half the state's 9-year-olds as failures?

Underlying all of this testing, of course, is the presumption that schools won't do the job unless they are publicly shamed into it. This is not only an insult to the majority of professional educators, it is simply untrue. Policymakers may manipulate test results in the future to prove that hardball policies get results, but it will not change some basic truths:

  • The majority of teachers care about kids and are doing a good job.
  • The majority of kids trust their teachers and want to come to school.
  • Beating up schools in the media will not improve education.
  • Arduous and frequent testing doesn't make kids smarter.

Schools need to be accountable--but first and foremost to the children they serve, not to state policymakers. This testing mania is not in our children's best interests. After all, you don't fatten cattle by constantly weighing them.

Suzanne Tingley is the superintendent of the Sackets Harbor Central School District in New York and writes frequently on educational issues.

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 44

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