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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 Stakes Testing: The New SAT’s

By Peter DeWitt — December 22, 2011 3 min read
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If you’re sitting on the sidelines watching this happen, it’s time to join the game.

The dean of Harvard University called me yesterday. After I hung up the phone and visited some classrooms I went back to my office and received a message that the dean of Yale called. They wanted transcripts for a few of our students. It’s amazing to be on the phone with such prestigious universities. Another day in the life of an elementary school principal.

The reality is that none of that is true. Harvard and Yale have not been calling, nor are any other colleges and universities around North America. However, with all of the focus on high stakes testing you would think that they would be calling for transcripts at any moment. High stakes testing brings the same type of pressure that we used to see with the SAT’s. Students choose to take the SAT’s. 3rd through 8th grade students do not have a choice.

The other day the New York State Education Department (SED), which oversees the education in the state in which I reside, put out the ELA and Math testing schedule that will affect all of the K-8 students. For three days each week for two weeks our students will be tested. Six days of high stakes testing.

The tests run anywhere from 45 to 70 minutes for general education students. That doesn’t always include the time it takes to get students situated as well as the time it takes teachers to read the directions to students. SED was kind enough to write in the directions that during the 70 minute test teachers can allow their students a ten minute break half way through but the students are not allowed to talk with one another. In addition, our special education population who receive IEP mandated time and a half or extended time may want to bring their pajamas because they may be at school late into the night.

According to the Wall Street Journal New York State students and teachers will see a 38% increase in testing in 3rd grade, 18% in 4th grade and 37% in 5th grade (Fleisher). If you’re sitting on the sidelines watching this happen, it’s time to join the game. We know that testing is harmful to the education of our students (Kohn) but some states are increasing the length of their high stakes tests. New York State’s exams are longer because they are embedding field test questions into the test which will not count toward student scores.

While we know that students need to be exposed to various experiences in a variety of subjects, some states are creating situations where schools are forced to focus solely on math and ELA. Public schools understand that they have to make sure students are career and college ready but they do not think that high stakes testing is the way to get there. If high stakes tests were the answer, then the public school system would not be hearing that kids are not ready for college. High stakes testing has been around long enough that students in college grew up taking them. If they were created to help schools prepare kids for college and the workplace, they’re clearly not working.

Although many of us have a strong distaste for high stakes testing because of the pressure it puts on teachers and the stress it causes for students, it’s all of the things that come with state testing that really frighten us. The news reports that public schools are failing, the concern of being labeled as a School in Need of Improvement (SINI) and the conversations with parents trying to assure them that their children are more than a 2 are some of the issues public schools will face.

High stakes tests are created for the middle 1/3 of our student population, which means that the bottom 1/3 will score with a 1 or a 2. Some students, just like adults, are not good at taking tests, which means that these tests really are not showing what they truly know. It is my hope that some day we are able to find some common ground and move away from our high stakes testing focus. It may only take 60 minutes to take the test but the fallout from these tests last forever.

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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.