School & District Management Opinion

Leading Through the Testing Minefield

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 25, 2013 4 min read
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The belief that our schools are failing our students is not new. In his 1995 NY Times article, Peter Applebome wrote, “But, in an escalating debate clouded by a blizzard of conflicting statistics and the currents of politics, a vocal core of scholars and educational revisionists has created a stir by arguing that there has been no broad decline in American education and that the notion that schools are failing miserably has as much to do with politics as reality.” His entire article is worth a read, not only because it is thought provoking and well written, but because it was written 18 YEARS AGO and is spot-on for the current environment.

So where are we now? The public and the legislature believe we are failing; and it seems that they have been thinking so for quite some time. To be fair, there are some schools that are failing, but certainly not all. Our politicians are demanding metrics for accountability. They think we are failing the students, they think the institutions in which we work are failing, and they think the remedy is spending millions of dollars to for-profit companies to test the students on the standards and curriculum being taught in our schools.

Their remedy for us is to test the children and use the results to hold us accountable for their success or failure. Ironically, the concept is not terribly flawed. Why shouldn’t we be held accountable for our students’ success? But first we should ask what we are measuring and what are we considering as success? Even if the tests are measuring “the right stuff”, how is it that the students who are taking these tests can reveal mastery if the curriculum and standards have only been introduced, in some cases, months before the first administration of the test? If the defense is that it has to start sometime, then we wonder why test the acknowledged unprepared? The children who are taking these tests for the first time are the ones bearing the burden of sitting for tests that seems too hard, too different, and on curricular content that has been only recently introduced in our schools.

Why is it that assessments cause so many children so much distress? If they are suffering an unintended consequence of this testing melee, then something terribly wrong is happening. The NY Times reported about the new testing in New York, “Complaints were plentiful: the tests were too long; students were demoralized to the point of tears; teachers were not adequately prepared.” The Huffington Post reported that a scoring mistake made by Pearson, resulted in 2,700 students initially being denied access into NY’s gifted program.

Those who hold contracts with these testing companies are beginning to point fingers. It is not a new thing for state education departments to pay companies to develop statewide tests. For many years, Pearson has been the most prominent test developer. Now, their name is at the center of the current lively conversation. According to the NY Times, “Robert Scott, the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, said...that student testing in the state had become a “perversion of its original intent” and that he looked forward to “reeling it back” in the future...Mr. Scott called for an accountability process that measured “every other day of a school’s life besides testing day.” If the tests, themselves, fail, politicians do not want to bear the burden. The stage is being set for a classic case of the old Boss Tweed Ring cartoon...everyone is pointing at everyone else.

While children are paying a price in lost class time and assessments (that may not even be measuring what needs to be measured), large numbers of teachers must be out of the classroom, leaving their students with substitute teachers, in order to be trained and score these tests. Students are missing weeks of learning while the tests are administered and now their teachers are out of the classroom to score the tests. Are we asking the right questions and taking the right action?

School leaders are performing the unenviable task of making all this seem OK to our students, their parents, and our teachers. We carry out these tasks with fidelity and honesty, standing tall while we live with the frustration , fatigue, fear...and yes, anger... growing within our communities. Around the country there are school leaders doing just that. It is hard work that goes unrecognized while it is some of the hardest work to do.

Distraction within this testing frenzy can be dangerous. While trying to fix education with testing, and driving us into a tizzy while we try to implement this impossible task, there are other issues that have quieted down but will not go away. The testing noise has taken center stage. The longer school day and longer school year have receded into planning. Do not think they are sleeping dogs. Politics and education have long been awkward partners. Most frequently, politics leads the dance. We wish our turn to lead was coming but we don’t see it happening.

Since we are already in the middle of all of this, and there seems to be no beginning or end, we need to learn how to both stay ahead of the wave and learn how to work better within the structure of the system. On that score, we recommend Rick Hess’ book Cage-Busting Leadership. Perhaps with the summer coming, and possibly having the time to fit in one more book to read, his insight may offer some guideposts for 2013 - 2014 and beyond.

Recommended Reading:
Hess, Fredrick M. (2013). Cage-Busting Leadership. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Ann and Jill invite your Tweets!

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.