Federal Opinion

Jack Hassard: The Testing Games put our Youth at Risk

By Anthony Cody — April 19, 2012 8 min read
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Guest post by Jack Hassard. Originally posted here. Note: This is the third in a series of articles on the consequences of the authoritarian standards & high-stakes testing

In the next month every American girl and boy in grades 3- 8 will participate in the testing games, an annual competition to determine which schools are good or bad, whether they have a good teacher or a bad one, and what factoids they put to memory or guesswork.

The “testing games” have been part of human culture for a long time, but they have taken on greater significance since policy makers have figured out how to differentiate “winners and losers” in the annual contest held each spring.

Third through eighth grade girls and boys, in the annual “testing games” will sit in place over several days spending at least 6 hours at their desks bubbling in test answer sheets; for some special education students they might take as long as 12 hours. More than 60 million tests will be administered.

The Hunger Games
In 2008, Suzanne Collins published the first book in a trilogy called The Hunger Games. A series of books for young adults, The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12 - 18 from 12 different districts are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle, which only one person wins. The author of the Hunger Games says that the inspiration for the series came from channel surfing in which she saw one reality show after another, but also footage of the invasion of Iraq. These images blurred, and Collins created a mythically-based story set in the future based on Roman gladiatorial games. The hunger games were initiated as a punishment for a previous rebellion against the central government. The hunger games are televised, so that everyone can watch the battle to the end.

The Testing Games
In 2001, the U.S. Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). NCLB requires that each state develop assessments in basic skills, mathematics and reading, at first, but it has now expanded to other areas. The “testing games” are an annual event making every boy and girl participate (starting at grade 3) to ensure that their state and school continue to receive federal funding. The testing games that children and youth are annually required to participate in are used to identify winners and losers. Unlike the Hunger Games, children are used to determine winning schools, teachers and districts. No one dies. However, we are testing the life out of our children and youth.

Here is how the testing games work. Student scores determine whether a school has done a good or bad job. Schools which receive Federal ESEA funding must make progress (known as Adequate Yearly Progress) on test scores. Schools compare scores from one year to the next, and use the difference to determine how well or poorly the children and youth did.

Students are not televised when they take these tests. However, the results are published in the local newspapers, and using the students’ test scores, schools that didn’t make AYP are labeled and their names published in the papers. And one more thing. Policy makers are hunting for bad teachers. To do this, they have required states to begin using VAM (Value Added Modeling) to rate teachers, and to then humiliate the teachers by publishing VAM scores in the local papers. Check Los Angeles. Check New York City.


In each of the scenarios described above, The Hunger Games and The Testing Games, youth are dehumanized and used as gladiators, or in the case of The Testing Games pawns, in which their moves are used to punish or reward states, districts, schools and teachers. On Valerie Strauss’ blog, there was a recent post that gets to the heart of the tragedy of The Testing Games, and how it is not only a dehumanizing event, but has nothing to do with helping students find out about their own learning. The post, written by Carol Corbett Burris, identifies with a ten year old neighbor who asks why she has to take test after test right after spring vacation. Ms. Burris, a New York school principal, realizes that she didn’t give her neighbor a good answer. But she used this encounter to delve into testing, especially the New York state exams. One of the things that Ms. Burris said that is significant here is that testing is now hardly about students at all. She puts it this way:

When my 10-year-old neighbor picks up her pencil on April 17, she will determine, in part, the evaluation of her teacher, principal, school and perhaps even the school of education that her teacher attended, as suggested by a recent New York proposal for testing. As a matter of measurement, this is nonsense. And it applies awful pressure on teachers and schools to become test-prep factories. But it's also an unfair and unnecessary burden to put on the shoulders of a child.
It is also the reason that the tests now have to last six hours. No longer are they designed to determine if the student is achieving at grade level or needs extra help. The new tests now include below-grade-level, above-grade-level and field-test questions. If the state is going to use the student tests to evaluate teachers, those tests must be able to show yearly student growth for students who are below- or above-grade-level in skills. The tests must also be able to evaluate the validity and reliability of future questions because if the state is going to mandate the dismissal of teachers and principals based on student test results, or ruin their reputation by posting their scores in the newspaper, then it must also require that the tests be designed to stand up in court (whether or not they ultimate do stand up is still an open question). The needs of the lawyer, not the child, are now front and center.

The Testing Games out of Control
The Hunger Games are a futuristic fictional story of “poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of war among others.”

The Testing Games are real, and they do relate to poverty, starvation, oppression, and the effects of authoritarian policies on life in schools. The Testing Games are out of control!

Because of NCLB testing requirements, many school districts have had to divert resources away from teaching and learning and into their testing and assessment budget. There is also an enormous loss of instructional time. So many schools are caught up in teaching to the test, and many schools take weeks to prepare students for The Testing Games. Because we test in only a few areas, the curriculum is narrowed as teachers are forced to prepare their students in limited areas such as mathematics and reading.

Testing is out of control not only in the sense of administering tests. There are consequences to testing that include shipment costs, scoring services, reporting scores, and then implementing educational service to schools whose students didn’t do well, and put the school at risk by not meeting AYP goals.

Before NCLB, states spent money on assessment, especially in paying private companies to develop content-based assessments. According to one report states spent about $423 million on standardized testing prior to NCLB, but during the 2007 - 08 school year the amount increased to more than $1.1 billion. Of course this a great windfall for the few companies that develop state assessments.

According to Pauline Vu, Stateline.org writer, in 2005 - 2006, when all states had to administer tests in math and reading, 45 million tests were administered throughout the country. And according to Vu, the number is increasing as we add more content areas to the testing games, such as science. Most of the burden NCLB testing is on states and local governments, not the Federal government.

The Testing Games Sample Schedule of Events
Just as most events have schedules, you can find the testing games’ schedule for your local school district by simply going to their website, and googling test schedule.

I did this for the Fulton County School District in Georgia. Fulton is a large urban district crossing from the south of Atlanta to the north of the city. Here is the testing schedule for Fulton County. Take a look.

As you can see, elementary students are in the midst of the testing games, as most of them are taking the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT). Middle school students not only take the CRCT’s but also Georgia End-of-Course Tests (EOCT). High school is a case to itself. A typical high school student will take the Georgia High School Graduation Test, EOCT tests in in mathematics, social studies, science, and English language arts, the Georgia writing test, Advanced Placement (AP) exams, not to mention SATs or ACTs.

It’s Not A Game

Unfortunately, The Testing Games is not a game, but is the reality for all of today’s youth. In my recent post, I explore the social-emotional consequences of high-stakes testing and referenced Professor Stephanie Jones’ work in which she suggests that the phenomena of anxious teachers and sobbing children is related to mandatory dehumanization and emotional policy making.

As long as policy makers continue on the path of punishment and retaliation for what they believe is the problem with schools, bad teachers, then we will get no where. However, if we, as Professor Jones suggests, stand in solidarity to protest this dehumanization of schooling, and show policy makers that their emotional decisions are not based on logic, nor on research finding related to school effectiveness, then perhaps we can more beyond this morass.

As Professor Michael Marder has shown, the association between poverty concentration and educational performance is very strong, and he shows that teachers are not the main cause of the so called “failure of schools.” The NCLB and the subsequent NCLB Waivers ignore the real variables that effect learning, yet insist on perverting schools by turning the real heroes into the enemy. Bad teachers have not created the problem; failed policies of bureaucrats is our problem. What do we do?

The Testing Games need to go. They need to be banned. We need to tell policy makers that the testing games should never be used to rate teachers, separate schools, fire principals or teachers. And above all else, we need to take our children and youth out of harms way, and stop this testing mania.

What are your views on the Testing Games? Do you think that high-stakes tests are out of control and should be banned?

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design & implementation of TEEMS, a clinically based masters program for mathematics, science, and engineering majors. He was director of the Global Thinking Project, an Internet-based environmental program linking schools between Russia and U.S.A at first, and then many countries around the world. He also conducted seminars around the country on science teaching, inquiry and technology for the Bureau of Education and Research and for school districts’ staff development programs.

He is author of more than 20 books including The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, and most recently The Art of Teaching Science, 2nd Edition and Science as Inquiry, 2nd Edition.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.