It’s the Right Time to Stop the Overdose of Standardized Testing

A bit of personal history: I live in the first state to launch statewide standardized assessments, back in 1969-70. Every single one of the 32+ years I taught, in every school, at least some of my Michigan students were taking state-sponsored standardized tests. Honestly, I didn’t think about it much.

In the 1970s, we had the MEAP test for 4th, 7th and 10th grades—two to three days’ worth of testing blocks, in the fall. Teachers understood they were tests of basic skills, and the best strategy was simply reviewing traditional concepts. A couple of times, one of the elementary schools in the district where I taught had a 100% pass rate. Because, on the MEAPs, students either did well enough to meet the grade-level benchmark, or they didn’t.

Schools with low pass rates got more money. The state legislature thought more intensive instruction would help children whose critical skills were weak. For the rest, well—the annual check-up was over.

Those were the days.

What this means is that Michigan stands as the first state to have 50 years of testing data, from a wide array of tests. We had state-created tests, aligned with state-crafted standards. For a while, all our juniors took the ACT, whether they were college-bound or not. We’ve used our own, written-by-MI-teacher standards and common standards. We implemented a rigorous, college-bound “merit” curriculum for all, in the hopes that it would raise test scores.

We had cutting-edge hands-on 8th grade science tests, performed in lab groups, where teams of students caused a tubular balloon stretched over a narrow beaker to inflate and deflate, as the gasses inside heated and cooled. That one was fun.

What we haven’t had is clear and steady improvement in test scores. In fact, due largely to clear and steady reductions in funding, we’ve slipped to near the bottom of the pack.

And now, we have students taking computer-based tests at home. In front of their parents. Leaving aside the very real aspect of invalid data, parents are observing, in real time, the testing process. A friend got this message from one of her former students, now a parent herself:

Just had to share how horrified I am by the NWEA tests. Our school this year is allowing us to take them from home and today [my second grader] took the reading and math assessments. He was immediately discouraged by the math (his favorite subject) as the first few questions were things he hasn’t been exposed to yet. This set him up to fail on questions he could answer because he was upset and “feeling stupid”. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have to proctor these assessments for a group of kids and have your own success as an educator be judged by the results of these awful exams.

Thank you for being such a strong voice advocating for all of our kids and for educating educators. I’m so grateful for the amazing teachers I was blessed with all throughout my time at XX and for the fantastic educators my kids have had thus far too!  Are there places or people that would be helpful to contact or to share our experience with, in order to help propel change?  

The ‘strong voice advocating for all our kids’ this mom is addressing is June Teisan, a nationally recognized teacher leader. And while the thrust of the comment—I had no idea how damaging these tests could be until I saw them for myself!—is more and more common, it’s the last sentence that sets it apart.

Just who needs to know about this? What can parents do?

The Opt-Out movement is still alive, and parents have more reason than ever to reject standardized tests. But this may well be our window for changing, once and for all, our pointless and wasteful love affair with standardized testing. They don’t tell us what we need to know, and they harm kids who don’t deserve harm. It’s as simple as that.

Ask any teacher: What are the real outcomes of using standardized testing? Cui bono?

The scariest thing to me is that any teacher who’s joined the profession in the last 15-20 years is thoroughly familiar with The Tests, and may in fact see them as something we’ve always done, something necessary.  Something, without which, we will be flying blind. They might perceive school as a place where all decisions are best made off-site by ‘experts’ and ‘authorities,’ without whom there would be no ‘accountability.’ A lawless place that needs plenty of guardrails and consequences.

It wasn’t always like this.

June and I had a short conversation about this—who might be able to help parents, teachers and school leaders assemble the strength to buck the corporate test-makers and non-profits? Those who depend on the data generated by tests to make proclamations and influence policy-making?

There are always new reports and opinion pieces on testing to share. Tom Ultican has a good one where he says this, about CREDO’s scare-mongering over projected (not real) falling scores:
 
This is the apparent purpose of the paper; selling testing. People are starting to realize standardized testing is a complete fraud; a waste of time, resources and money. The only useful purpose ever for this kind of testing was as a fraudulent means to claim public schools were failing and must be privatized.

Bob Shepherd, a retired teacher with long experience in the industry says this:

The dirty secret of the standardized testing industry is the breathtakingly low quality of the tests themselves. I worked in the educational publishing industry at very high levels for more than twenty years. I have produced materials for all the major standardized test publishers, and I know from experience that quality control processes in that industry have dropped to such low levels that the tests, these days, are typically extraordinarily sloppy and neither reliable nor valid.

The National Education Policy Center, assessing a series of pro-testing white papers on accountability:

The series correctly concludes that state accountability systems have not improved student achievement or closed achievement gaps over the last decade. Despite this conclusion, however, the series puzzlingly insists that state testing and accountability systems must be reinstated in 2020-21 and must focus on schools with the lowest performance levels.

Reports overstate some research conclusions and ignore a large body of research about factors that influence student outcomes. Specifically, the reports do not acknowledge the critical need for access to quality educators and fiscal resources, which are foundational to any serious effort to improve student outcomes. Moreover, the reports focus very narrowly on test scores as the primary outcome of schooling and ignore outcomes such as critical thinking, media literacy, and civics that are more important than ever.

If there were ever a time when testing ought to be suspended, re-examined and scaled back, it’s now.

Why scaling back and not eliminating them, cold turkey? Because I’ve been on this earth long enough to know that it’s not likely that grant-funded education nonprofits and test manufacturers will go down without a fight.

And try explaining to any forty-year old college-educated Dad that tests don’t matter any more, his children don’t have to take them, and every teacher will just be trusted to do their best from now on.

Ideas like ‘accountability’ have seeped into our national consciousness. Fear of ‘falling behind’ has been the subject of any number of local news stories. And let’s not even start with the beating teachers have taken, during a pandemic, when the idea of neat and tidy, leveled learning goals turned into flaming Zambonis.

We’re not getting rid of tests that easily. However.

Now is the perfect time for school leaders to strip off expensive unnecessary standardized tests, using budget crises and lack of technological infrastructure as an excuse. It might be time to put a focus on critical thinking, media literacy and civics, rather than drilling on testable items. Time to support parents who want to opt their children out.

For fifty years, Michigan has been testing, testing, testing. It’s time for a re-think. And it’s time for parents to turn to teachers and school leaders and demand change.

The Real Learning is in the Chat Box

My friend Mitchell Robinson, of Michigan State University asks: Am I the only teacher who finishes a Zoom class, during which I’m sharing a slide show, moderating class discussions, posing questions on assigned readings, and trying to respond to students’ questions in a thoughtful way, only to find out after ending the Zoom session that there was a whole other class happening in the chat window that I couldn’t see because my cursor had disappeared under the 25 windows and tabs I had open, juggling apps and programs?

Ah, yes. The chat box. My theory is that the chat box, used by adults and college students, contains what people want others to believe they’re thinking (cute jokes, pithy observations, deep questions) but don’t want to say out loud. What they’ve always been thinking, in fact, as a ‘presentation’ was occurring, in real time and real life, as well as online: a mishmash of random thoughts, tentative assertions and show-off remarks. Perhaps, in some contexts, a little flirting.

You might even say the chat box contents, especially in a well-run virtual classroom, is what participants will be taking away from this class—not the official material, as displayed, but their reactions to those ideas. Content on the slides will always be there for you, to refer to, like facts in a book. The chat box, and ongoing dialogue following are where the learning juice is found.

Brilliant lectures or important speeches are much better when there is a backchannel conversation going on. Sort of like watching political debates and Twitter at the same time, as people offer bon mots about, say, having a fly on your head, but also more cogent ideas about national leadership.

That’s what Dr. Robinson found, too—his students were ‘sharing their raw and deeply personal “takes” on the day’s discussion prompts that somehow didn’t make their way into the video feed…’

For several years, I facilitated seminars for an online graduate course in teacher leadership. Sometimes, I had guest speakers–including a few well-known authors and thought leaders in education. This was before using an electronic meeting platform was commonplace–and we had to set aside a half-hour before each seminar to help guests and students learn to use the platform, which was called Elluminate.

I wouldn’t dream of outing anyone, but there were more than a couple of people who fly all over the country and get big speaker fees who were adamant that they did not want to ‘talk on the internet’ or have people see them on camera. Can’t I just call in, they’d say? On the phone?

Elluminate had a chat function, too. The chat box was always on the screen unless the moderator made it inaccessible. Some of our participants (mostly teachers) found it maddening or terribly rude that backchannel chat was going on while the class speaker was presenting.

There were speakers who sharply asked participants to HOLD THEIR QUESTIONS until they were finished. Often, it was just get-to-know-you chatting, as participants came from all over the country. Worse, speakers would stop to read the chat every time something was posted, including private messages posted between individuals. Awkward.

They couldn’t relax, and trust that folks were following along, while simultaneously questioning or extending what they were learning.

I started telling guest speakers that this represented the real way students and adults processed any content. I had teachers tell me that this was the problem in education today—nobody had taught their students how to be quiet and pay attention. It was disrespectful.

Questioned, most would admit that they didn’t listen respectfully to every word an administrator said in a mandated staff meeting. And they especially didn’t pay attention to what students communicated to each other during their conventional classes unless it was an Official Discussion where students were Supposed to Contribute. There was a hierarchy of respect, it seems, and you know who was on the bottom.

I think of the chat box as a tool for democracy of thought.  Of course, I have mostly used it with teens and adults, who could construct a sentence or express a thought.

But I am guessing that, in spite of the fact that it’s absolutely the wrong way to teach early elementary grades, by the end of the year, many of our youngest students will have absorbed the road rules, democratic or not, of the online classroom. To chat, or not to chat.  To type a word, instead of speaking or writing it by hand. I can’t decide if that’s progress or tragedy.

Mitchell Robinson, after marveling at the riches and throwaway thoughts in his chat box, said this, about his students, who are learning to teach and learn in new ways, leapfrogging over traditional practice:

This next generation of teachers is so smart, so thoughtful, and so empathetic. During a time when everything looks so dark, these young teachers offer the promise of a brighter future–it’s just up to us to get them ready to take over. And then get out of the way.