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Beyond the Classroom: High stakes testing raises issues

By Staff | Oct 31, 2014

As an educator for more than 30 years, I have seen the role of standardized testing in schools evolve. Going back even further, I can remember the Iowa Basic Test of Basic Skills that I took in the 1960s. I always wondered why Iowans got to make the test that everyone took. Today, however, standardized tests have become a critical issue for schools in North Dakota, requiring schools to adjust curriculum, rework teaching assignments, add professional development, and perhaps most importantly, create concern.

Today is the era of high-stakes testing. Ever since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, there has been an increased emphasis on accountability in public schools. In an effort to make schools more accountable, NCLB required that students take a standardized test to measure proficiency in reading, language arts and math. Further, the law required that beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, all students would demonstrate proficiency in the above three areas. Out of this law, then, was born the concept of high-stakes testing. Today, if 100 percent of a school’s students do not reach a proficient level on the yearly test, that school will be placed on “program improvement” and charged with making sure that the next time students take the test, all students be proficient. That is a wonderful goal, but there are some critical issues at play here. Who are the stakes really high for? Who has improved in the next round of tests – the group that was deficient, or next year’s class that did not even take the test last year? How will we know we have improved when we are taking a new test based on new standards? These three factors create significant stumbling blocks for educators.

First, who are the stakes high for? Tests are a measurement of what is learned in school; however, if a student fails every standardized test in his or her school career, he or she will still likely graduate with a high school diploma. The stakes for students, then, are not very high. The stakes for schools can be extremely punitive, and measures can range from a program improvement plan to a plan for alternative governance. There is an adage that says you don’t fatten cattle by weighing them. Similarly, you don’t teach students by testing them. The most important time to weigh cattle is when they are ready to go to market. They have been given input (feed), and they are ready to move on if they make the desired weight. As a way to measure progress, students are tested regularly as they pass through school, but we don’t know in the end if they have reached the desired goals. In other words, there are not exit or proficiency exams required for graduation.

The second issue with our testing system is the fact that from year to year we are looking for improvement, but we are measuring different students. Currently, we test all students in grades 3-8 and 11. If the 11th-grade students do not reach proficiency on their tests, we will never know if they improved because they never take the test again. Certainly those students may be positively influenced by a program improvement plan, but we will never truly know because we don’t test them, and next year’s data will be based on the class of students one year behind them. In effect, we don’t even weigh the same cattle sometimes.

Third, the Common Core standards have become a topic of debate among all stakeholders in education. The main issue is the concern that they are a uniform set of standards set forth by the federal government, circumventing local control. I will save the debate on the merits of Common Core for another day, but North Dakota has adopted these new standards, and this year our state will require schools to administer a new standardized test to our students that measures the Common Core standards. Based on testing completed in the 2013-14 school year, 378 out of 455 schools in the state did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress, and 164 out of 175 school districts in the state (including Wolford) did not meet AYP. For the schools and districts in program improvement, the only way to be removed from program improvement is for their students to score 100 percent proficiency on a new test based on a new set of standards. It is easy to see why teachers and administrators become frustrated with a seemingly disjointed system.

You might be tempted to say that I am crying sour grapes here because Wolford did not make AYP last year. However, as stated above, we are in good company: 94 percent of North Dakota school districts did not make AYP last year. What I am saying is that teachers, administrators and school boards face numerous challenges every day, and they have risen to the occasion time and time again. Until these issues with testing are addressed by educational policy makers, schools will continue to struggle with high stakes testing. Let’s measure the same students every year for progress. Let’s use a growth model that shows that the same students are making progress from year to year, and let’s set realistic standards that reveal that growth. Accountability is absolutely necessary for effective teaching and learning; however, let’s remove barriers to effective education, not create them.

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