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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

High Noon: The Showdown Over High-Stakes Testing

By Peter DeWitt — April 02, 2015 5 min read
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“We need to stop thinking of assessment merely as an accountability tool and start using it as a teaching tool.” Rick Stiggins

Why do we have assessment?

Assessment experts will say that we use assessment to guide learning. Assessment is seen as either formative or summative by many experts, while others believe that there is a continuum of assessment that blends both formative and summative together.

We know that there are students who don’t do well on tests. Unfortunately that is sometimes due to the adults around them that say they aren’t good test takers long before the test is ever dropped in front of them. Other students do well on tests but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they ever learned anything new.

Ultimately, high quality assessments should be able to tell us where the student has a weakness and where they have strengths. We call that effective feedback. As we data dive we should be able to use the assessment to help us understand how to better instruct the student, and it should even help us see whether our instruction had a positive or negative impact.

In this guest blog for Finding Common Ground, assessment expert Rick Stiggins writes,

The assessment process works effectively only if the results of assessments are communicated to the intended user in a timely and understandable manner and in a manner reflective of the intended purpose for the assessment. Students have the right to have all evidence of their achievement communicated to them or to others in a way that assures complete understanding meaning of those assessment results by the recipient.

However, in states like New York high stakes testing is less about effective feedback, which is timely and specific to student needs, and it seems to be more about accountability to prove that there are failing teachers, leaders and schools. Especially now, when most of Democratic assembly recently voted with a heavy heart to have 50% of evaluation tied to testing. Clearly it was a heavy heart and not a great deal of knowledge about education and student learning.

Complicated Issue

The issue of high stakes testing is far more complicated than saying there are two sides to the debate. We all know that there is the reform movement and an anti-reform movement but in the middle is a much larger population of people who want to see change in the way schools approach teaching and learning, but do not agree with any more top-down heavy handed mandates.

In its present form, high stakes testing is not valuable to most teachers. You need look no further than Facebook and Twitter, and even the most even-tempered people understand that children are being broken down by test scores. There needs to be a change to that very unhealthy dynamic, and for many this year...that means opting out of high stakes testing...especially in response to the recent vote approving some extreme education changes.

A few years ago I interviewed John King, the former Commissioner of the New York State Education Department and he wouldn’t acknowledge the opt out movement. There is no denying that it is getting stronger by the day. Just like any side of the education debate, there is one side saying parents should not opt out and another side saying all parents should opt their children out of high stakes testing.

It seems that this year there is a showdown at high noon. So much so that school district leaders are stating that parents cannot opt out because they will lose funding. Carol Burris, an award-winning principal from New York recently wrote about the opt out movement for the Washington Post. Burris wrote,

Last year the parents of approximately 60,000 New York students in Grades 3-8 refused to have their children take the English Language Arts and mathematics exams. This year, the New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of pro-public school, anti-testing advocates, are sponsoring more than 40 forums across the state, and parents are coming out in droves to express their dislike of Common Core test-based reform.

There was also a recent story from Buffalo where one school district’s board of education is considering opting out of high stakes testing but has been warned by the state that there will be drastic cuts to funding. This story from Buffalo, NY states,

The New York State Education Department is warning the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District not to boycott state-mandated testing after the district passed a resolution saying it would "seriously consider" doing so. In a letter to school board president Robert Dana, Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner says the district would face loss of federal and state funding if it chooses to boycott testing.

Drastic cuts to funding is one of the biggest reasons why parents will not see most school leaders jump for joy when the issue of opting out comes up in conversation. Over the last few years schools across NY State have experienced drastic budget cuts, so the threat of more cuts taking place is enough for the strongest school leaders to jump into compliance.

Meryl Tische, the Chancellor of NY State Education says that opting out would be a “terrible idea.” In a prepared statement for the NYS Council of School Superintendents (NYCOSS), Tische said,

I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing. Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college? Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State? Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education? Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few? I do not pretend that test results are the only way we know, but they are an important piece of information. They are the only common measure of progress we have. We are not going to force kids to take tests. That's not the New York way. But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

I would argue that withholding funding, or the threat of doing so, is forcing students to take a test, but that is due to my experience as a school principal in NY for 8 years where accountability and mandates was very top-down and forced schools to make bad decisions.

In the End

True assessment should always be about providing effective feedback to teachers, students and parents. That feedback should be timely and come from assessments that are reliable. It should explain whether what we are doing in the classroom works...or doesn’t. State testing does not offer that, and many people do not think that good sound pedagogy is at the center of why we have the present testing system in NY.

For parents, opting out should be an informed decision. There are parents who feel strongly that their children need to take the test and that should be respected and not seen as a weakness, while others feel strongly that their children shouldn’t, and they are looking at this as an act of civil disobedience.

If parents chose to opt out, they should be clear about:

  • Why they are doing it
  • Giving their children reasons why they will not be taking a test that all of their peers are taking
  • Why (and if) opting out of high stakes testing is different from opting out of the usual tests that they have to take in school

As we all move forward toward High Noon where testing is concerned, we should:

  • Look at whether teacher made tests have the same flaws that we say high stakes testing does
  • Understand that civil disobedience sounds great when it comes to high stakes testing but schools have had compliance issues long before testing and that we need to foster student voice in more ways than the ones that support our side
  • Take time to consider whether we have listened to the voices of parents outside of the times that it has benefitted us
  • Find a way to take our focus off of one single issue and clearly articulate what we want out of public education and that learning needs to be at the center of that discussion

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.