Standardized Testing: The Furor Over Exams

The weather feels like summer and we had a week away, but we actually haven’t quite brought our school year to a close. We have a couple of weeks left partly because we haven’t done our end-of-year testing yet.  As part of the requirements for our state, the kids have to take a national exam (there are several to choose from). The tests are graded elsewhere, we receive the results in the mail, and then we have to forward them to our local school district.

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LD last year as he took his standardized test.

I know lately there’s been a furor about testing lately — particularly in New York where new exams created boycotts. The New York set of exams are grounded in new curricular standards called the Common Core. Adopted by 45 states, Common Core aims to foster independent thinking, with an emphasis on relating material to real-world issues.  According to an article in the New York Times, “A Tough New Test Spurs Protests and Tears,” a lot of students opted out of these exams. For example,

 Some parents, particularly at elite schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, have withdrawn their children from testing this year, joining a broader nationwide opt-out movement.

At the Earth School, about one-third of students slated to take the tests decided to sit out, parents said.

At South Side Middle School in Rockville Centre, on Long Island, more than half of the eighth-grade class, 134 out of 260 students, opted out of the exams, according to the principal, Shelagh McGinn.

Katie Zahedi, the principal at Linden Avenue Middle School in the Hudson Valley town of Red Hook, where 55 out of 480 students opted out, said education officials too often assumed that more testing would improve results.

One article in PolicyMic pointed out that by the time students finish 12th grade nearly five weeks have been devoted to testing (not to mention pre and post testing).  “All this testing has turned schools across the country into test-prep factories, where test-taking strategies and rote skills take priority over deeper learning… Excessive testing also poisons students’ attitudes towards education and schooling,” writes Daniel Dawer, a middle school English language arts teacher. 

Last year about this time, there was a big uproar about “pineapple-gate.”  Questions on the NY state exam last year had students really stumped. Quite a furor arose leading to articles in several New York newspapers. The story students read on the exam was a tale based on the fable, the Tortoise and the Hare. In this version a pineapple squared off against the hare. All the animals wondered if the leg-less pineapple could win or if the pineapple was trying to trick them by acting immobile.  The pineapple never does move, the hare wins and the animals eat the pineapple. The moral: Pineapples don’t have sleeves. You can read the story and test questions here. Students had to answer questions like: “The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were”… and “Which animal spoke the wisest words?”  You can read more at NY Daily Newshere and here.  There was even a story in the New York Times about it on April 20, 2012. The question was thrown out by NY education officials because of the ambiguous nature of the questions.

Anyway, having taught for years myself and seeing how much more students remembered from creative activities, debates, projects, deep discussions… and lots of things that weren’t “on the test” I’ve never been that impressed with those standardized tests especially when teachers, principals and schools are judged on how well their students have done.

My friend, S, is a public school teacher in the county next to ours. She teaches 3rd grade and has found that she and her co-teachers really have to teach to the test. They are expected to have 100% pass-rates or their team… even their school is adversely affected. For example, schools that don’t show that students are making “adequate yearly progress”  are subject to federal sanctions including loss of federal funds and more. Furthermore, if schools have low scores then principals may resort to measures that will help improve those scores — ie. like dismissing teachers.   My friend, S, rarely does the more *creative* things she used to because those things are “not on the test.” The expendable things (like field trips) are often tossed out for more time preparing for exams.

Another friend, a public school music teacher said that she was handed math flashcards and was told she needed to help drill the kids when they weren’t busy in her class! (She was offended by that because of course she’s ALWAYS busy teaching the kids during class time!) She did smile politely, took the flashcards and stowed them in her desk drawer.   You can read a series of interviews done with principals and teachers about their feelings about standardized testing for a show called “Testing Our Schools” at PBS Frontline  (from 2001).

Our family decision to homeschool was definitely impacted by my experiences as a teacher. I want my kids to be excited by projects. I want them intrigued by experiments. I want them looking feverishly at plants and animals and be excited by the world around them. I want them to continue to run to me (and the Internet) to find out just what a cicada/frog/jellyfish/bird eats. I wanted to have deep discussions with them.  I want them to marvel at the size of the universe or ponder the minute things they can’t see.  I want them to read and read and read. I want them to have a very strong background in geography, history, math. I want them to learn to write well, read well, research well.  What I don’t want to do is teach to a test.  Do I want them to learn? Absolutely. Do I think that they need to know *this fact* by *this date*?  No.

All that said, my kids will have to take Grade 2 and Grade 4 standardized tests in the coming week or so. I think it is a good tool… a tool that made my kids feel good about their progress. DD declared them “TOO easy” last year (that was her emphasis not mine!).  I also think they can be useful for me as their ‘teacher’ to consider their weak areas.  But this is one of hundreds of assessments I make each and every day/week/month to monitor the progress and education of my kids. For example, I know day-by-day whether LD is catching on to how to find the common denominator and add unlike fractions. I talk to them about the experiments we’ve done.  I hate to think that so many teachers and schools are being assessed by one test each year.

In re-reading what I wrote I can see I put quite a negative spin on standardized testing. To be fair, there’s an article in the Hoover Institute Journal that explains some of the benefits of standardized testing, such as the argument that they hold teachers accountable. There’s also an article, “Stop Griping About Standardized Testing.”A few reasons for standardized testing:

  • 93% of studies on student testing, including the use of large-scale and high-stakes standardized tests, found a “positive effect” on student achievement, according to a peer-reviewed, 100-year analysis of testing research completed in 2011 by testing scholar Richard P. Phelps. [http://standardizedtests.procon.org/]
  • China has along tradition of standardized testing and leads the world in educational achievement. China displaced Finland as number one in reading, math, and science when Shanghai debuted on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings in 2009. Despite calls for a reduction in standardized testing, China’s testing regimen remains firmly in place.  Chester E. Finn, Jr., Chairman of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education, predicts that Chinese cities will top the PISA charts for the next several decades. [http://standardizedtests.procon.org/]

Read more pros and cons of standardized testing at http://standardizedtests.procon.org/.

One more thing I’d like to add for those of you who might not know very much about homeschooling, I am not required to follow the Common Core or to follow the same curriculum as the school district we live in. I design our own curriculum and submit that to our school district in August each year. Thus, we are free to study Africa and chemistry and to learn German even if that’s not what the public school kids are doing in our area. The requirements of homeschooling vary from state to state, so if you are interested in homeschooling your child be sure to check into the requirements of your area.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about standardized testing here or over at the Homeschool Den Facebook Page! ~Liesl

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2 Responses

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