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The Problem Is Bigger Than a Pineapple

By Diane Ravitch — April 24, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

The backlash against high-stakes standardized testing is growing into a genuine nationwide revolt. Nearly 400 school districts in Texas have passed a resolution opposing high-stakes testing, and the number increases every week. Nearly a third of the principals in New York state (some at risk of losing their jobs) have signed a petition against the state’s new and untried, high-stakes, test-based evaluation system.

Today, a group of organizations devoted to education, civil rights, and children issued a national resolution against high-stakes testing modeled on the Texas resolution. The National Testing Resolution urges citizens to join the rebellion against the testing that now has a choke-hold on children and their teachers. It calls on governors, legislatures, and state boards of education to re-examine their accountability systems, to reduce their reliance on standardized tests, and to increase their support for students and schools.

The National Testing Resolution calls on the Obama administration and Congress to “reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators”.

The organizations that have joined to oppose high-stakes testing include the Advancement Project; the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Fairtest; the Forum for Education and Democracy; MecklenburgACTS; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.; the National Education Association; the New York Performance Standards Consortium; Parents Across America; Parents United for Responsible Education (Chicago); Time Out from Testing; and the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries.

I hope that parents and teachers everywhere endorse this important statement of principle and bring it to their local and state leaders for consideration.

By coincidence, standardized testing was exposed to national ridicule this week because of a nonsensical question about a pineapple and a hare on the New York state English language arts test for 8th graders. Complaints about the pineapple story appeared on the New York City parents’ listserv, were reported in the New York Daily News, and then went viral overnight with postings on Facebook and Twitter. The New York City parent blog has a good summary. The Wall Street Journal published a hilarious interview with the real author of the fake testing story. On Twitter, it was referred to as #pineapplegate. The pineapple story was covered by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

But the state’s high-stakes testing examinations are no joke. The principal of a high-performing school wrote a letter to the state commissioner complaining about the quality of the questions in every grade. Teachers of the deaf said their students were asked to answer questions about sounds “such as the clickety-clack of a woman’s high heels and the rustle of wind blowing on leaves.”

There is madness in tying teachers’ careers and reputations to their students’ scores on such low-quality and incoherent examinations. Our policymakers have chosen to ignore the research warning that value-added assessment is inherently fraught with error, instability, and unreliability. Children are not wheat, their growth is not utterly predictable, and the standardized tests capture only a subset of what matters most in education.

But, Deborah, as the National Testing Resolution explains, there is a far larger question at issue here than the accuracy of the test questions. Even if the tests contained no absurd questions; even if the tests were flawless, the misuse of test scores is an affront to educators and to students. There may be diagnostic value in standardized tests, but they are now being treated as scientific instruments. What Pineapplegate demonstrates is that they are not scientific instruments. They are cultural artifacts, social constructions, created by fallible people. They should be used appropriately to provide useful information to teachers, not to punish or reward them.

At present, the standardized tests are used inappropriately. There should be no stakes attached to them. Decisions about teacher evaluation should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about bonuses should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about closing schools should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about retaining students should not be tied to student scores. All of these are weighty decisions that should be made by experienced professionals, taking into consideration a variety of factors specific to the child, the teacher, and the school.

Tests are a tool, not a goal. We should use them as needed, not let them use us. Their misuse has turned them into a weapon to narrow the curriculum, incentivize cheating, promote gaming the system, and control teachers. The more we rely on high-stakes standardized tests, the more we destroy students’ creativity, ingenuity, and willingness to think differently, and the more we demoralize teachers. The important decisions that each of us will face in our lives cannot be narrowed to one of four bubbles. We must prepare students to live in the world, not to comply on command.

The National Testing Resolution calls on all those who are concerned about the future of our society and the well-being of children to stop this mad obsession with test scores.

I hope the revolt grows until it consumes the terrible cult of measurement that has now so distorted the means and ends of education.

Diane

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.

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