Educators speak out against testing

Pencil - RedPerhaps Blaine principal Troy LaRiviere’s May 3 letter to the Chicago Sun-Times  emboldened other educators to speak out.

For example, the former head of assessment at CPS, Carole Perlman, wrote this letter to the Chicago Tribune criticizing the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers. “Though superficially appealing, using test scores to evaluate teachers will create more problems than it will solve. Excellent teachers will be erroneously labeled as incompetent, while poor teachers may get a pass. Students will not benefit.”

And just a few days ago, I received this wonderful e-mail from former teacher Judy Tomera, who agreed that I could share her comments:

Dear Julie Woestehoff,                                May 26, 2014

I’m writing to tell you how much I enjoyed you presence on Dick Kay’s show a Saturday or two ago and am looking forward to your next appearance.  I think what you had to say about schools and testing, in particular, is spot on.  It is my opinion after spending about 40 years teaching elementary school (K – 5th grade in rural, urban, and suburban schools) that standardized testing is a waste of time and resources for many reasons, one of which is that they do not test what you want to know about a child.  Many of the questions are ridiculous, designed to lead children astray so the standard bell curve can be preserved.  And, as you well know, the tests are not directly linked to curriculum so they are not a valid indicator of what children have learned in school.

For example:

In first grade in the 80s children were asked to identify which animal lays eggs and fill in the circle below it. (California Achievement Test) The pictures were of an elephant, bunny, snake, and horse.  Enough 6 and 7 years olds were drawn to the bunny (think April and Easter when most testing is done) to elicit the required number of wrong answers to maintain the bell curve.

In third grade in the 2000s on a reading test 3rd graders were asked to find the word in the row that has the same vowel sounds as the first word.  The first word was BEAR and the other words in the list were BEEN, EARS,  HAIR, and HERE.  Many children marked EARS because it had the same vowels, not vowel sounds. That item was also included on purpose to draw children to a wrong answer. I doubt if the children that missed that item would have read the following sentence incorrectly:  The bear had brown ears. Semantics and syntax play an important part in reading correctly. What child who can read would read the sentence as The bear had brown airs, which is the correct response to the question if students had indeed understood the question correctly.

Other examples of deliberate insertion of misleading questions can be identified in most standardized tests. In order to maintain the bell curve, half of the test takers must score less than the 50th percentile in the control groups and half over. Therefore when developing the test items some questions must be more difficult (tricky) or in some cases easier to maintain the bell curve in score distribution of the sample groups.  Questions of recall test memory, not skill. Questions not linked to curriculum are not  useful.  Yes, you are right, testing is a mean trick to play on children.

If you ask most adults, they do not have fond memories of the week of achievement testing. Now in most states it isn’t just in the spring. More is better. It is like getting on the scale every day to see if you have lost weight. It has nothing whatever to do with that goal. Eating less and exercising are better ways of achieving the goal. Time in the classroom providing enriched learning environments and experiences are far better at achieving best student outcomes.

And if you want to know how a child reads, listen to him or her. Fluency, expression, even a few questions of inference or recall are good. And, by the way, it is okay to look back. What good reader doesn’t from time to time. Otherwise, here again, you are just testing memory.

Another practice during testing time is to read aloud test items in the math section to the children who are struggling readers. The logic is that you are not testing math skills if the student is required to comprehend the question by reading it themselves as reading skills are involved.  However, what I found in my classes is that my weaker readers scored higher on the math test than many of the children who in their daily lives demonstrated greater understanding of math concepts. Why not read the math questions to all the children. Oral inflection is a big aid to understanding the written word so students who were read the questions had a big advantage over those who didn’t. You know, level the playing field.

Before I moved to Chicagoland, where I taught in a private school as the public schools could hire two beginning teachers rather than one experienced one like me (but that s another issue), I taught in a public school in Oregon that was rated number 1 in the state.  We would hold workshops two or three times a year to share our program (multiage classrooms) and teaching strategies with teachers and districts throughout the state who would send staff to our school to spend the day with us and our children.  Soon after I moved to NW Indiana, the Oregon State Department of Education instituted standardized testing as means to evaluate effectiveness of schools. How much you improved from year to year was the basis for high evaluation. The more you improved from the previous year, the higher your rank. So my school went from being the best  school in the state to in the middle somewhere simply because our scores, still very high, were not significantly higher than the very high scores from the year before. Schools that had previously scored lower and struggling schools that gained a few points on the outcomes of the test results indeed showed more improvement, though their scores were not in the high range and they got the higher ratings and headlines in the newspaper.  And, as we all know, what is in the newspaper counts.  It is politics.  I felt for the staff, students and parents of my Oregon school for doing an excellent job and not being recognized for that.

Testing is a mirage.  An expensive one.  There are far better ways of showing individual student progress and many schools are using them to communicate with parents.  When parents understand the issues and can see the authentic growth in their children they are pleased.  When they can’t, they and teachers are at least pointed in the direction that encourages improvement.  Test scores, in themselves do not do that.  They are misleading and dishonest and suck the enthusiasm and confidence out of learners.

Thank you for being so articulate in highlighting one of the many problems schools face and leading the way to improvement.  I am in your parade.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.