An Examination of Testing
by Michael Candelaria
The scene in the Atlanta courtroom was surreal. In one of the largest school cheating scandals nationwide, 11 of 12 educators from Atlanta Public Schools were convicted of racketeering and other crimes related to altered, fabricated or falsely certified standardized test scores.
Among the convicted were four teachers, three executive administrators, two testing coordinators, one principal and one assistant principal in a school district of roughly 50,000 students. According to the 2013 state investigation report, the cheating on standardized tests likely dated back to 2001 and occurred in at least 44 schools, involving more than 180 educators. Aside from the 12 on trial, almost two-dozen others were indicted, with many pleading guilty before trial.
Troubling, indeed. Yet, the events also are telling.
This isn’t an indictment of one school district or one city. In 2013, the Government Accountability Office found cheating in as many as 40 states and the District of Columbia. More appropriately, classroom corruption throughout the country puts the microscope on testing, which raises even more questions encompassing both education and social concerns.
Focus on Testing
Is there too much testing? Are the tests assessing correctly? What drives teachers and administrators to cheat? Do ethnicity, learning styles and student poverty play a role? And where do ethics fit in?
Few topics in public education raise the ire of parents and policymakers more than standardized testing in an environment of assessment reform. At the same time, there are no easy answers.
“I’m a believer in tests, but we have totally lost sight of what we’re doing now,” says Elizabeth Heins, Ph.D., professor of education at Stetson University. Heins teaches courses in classroom management, literacy, educational psychology and assessment, and holds the Nina B. Hollis Chair of Educational Reform.
For starters, there are too many K-12 tests, Heins says, and the data agree. A 2014 report from the Council of Chief State School Officers shows students take an average of 113 standardized tests between kindergarten and high school. That’s about nine per year.
Her point: While “data forensics” firms are busy examining the authenticity of test answer sheets at the request of state education boards, test results often aren’t available in time to be useful to students or teachers.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the 30-year-old National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Massachusetts, agrees. Schaeffer, who began his career in education at the Education Research Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes there are too many tests and too many consequences attached to them, raising the stakes for students, teachers and administrators. As was the case in Atlanta, those stakes range from grade promotion and graduation to teacher evaluation and school rating.
“Why do we test? We test to tell us what we need to teach. That’s not happening because all we’re doing is testing, testing, testing,” she asserts.
“Let’s look at what’s happening with the FSA,” she says, referring to the Florida Standards Assessment, a test typically given in March, April and May. “I like to get those test results for my class to analyze, so I asked a principal, ‘When are we going to get these tests results?’ Well, the answer was, ‘maybe in October.’
“If the results aren’t going to be available until October, those children who took the test have moved on. They have new teachers,” she says. If test results are designed to help teachers focus on what students need to learn better, then what good are test results that arrive after the students have left the class?
Teachers, in turn, can become overwhelmed with data they cannot use effectively.
“Teachers now have all this test data raining down upon them. They don’t know what’s good data or what’s not,” says Heins, who teaches an education master’s degree course called Measurement Evaluation and Testing. She doesn’t doubt the ethics of the educators she teaches in her class, and ethics are a significant component of her instruction. However, like Schaeffer, she acknowledges that mounting pressures have the potential of tempting teachers into wrongdoing.
Those pressures can be traced to the No Child Left Behind law, which opponents feel puts too much emphasis on (among other areas) student test scores. Former President George W. Bush signed that law in 2002, and while it expired in 2007, states still have to follow its requirements until a new law is signed.
Pressure increased when Race to the Top arrived via President Barack Obama in 2009, creating a $4.35 billion competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Essentially, the initiative has states competing for dollars in a no-excuse management environment at schools. States are awarded points for reaching certain achievements, including standardized test scores. Often, the resulting call to teachers is to improve student scores regardless of other factors, or else.
Consequently, Heins says, achieving the desired test results can become more important than the students’ education.
Mary Rock, a second-grade teacher at Shenandoah Elementary School in Orlando, believes that the idea of accountability is sound, but that its execution misses the mark.
“To some degree, I appreciate the government holding us accountable. But the expectations are too high, and there’s a disregard for teacher professionalism,” Rock says.
Rock also notes that priorities continue to shift regarding standardized testing, and even school administrators concede that testing is like “flying a plane while we’re building it.”
Heins and teachers like Rock advocate teacher-directed test assessments given periodically throughout the school year, sort of an old-school approach.
“Test to see where these children are and then adjust the instruction or figure out how we need to differentiate the instruction,” Heins says. “Then we test again. Teachers who test every week…are going to get a very good idea whether or not the children are learning what they need to learn.
“I want our tests to inform our teaching,” says Heins. “I don’t want them to take the place of teaching and then not get the results until months later when you no longer have those children.”
“Relying on primarily multiple choice, memorize-and-regurgitate tests ends up dumbing down teaching and learning,” says Schaeffer. “These tests also narrow the curriculum and produce kids who are less ready for college and careers even if test scores go up.
“It’s inappropriate to put that much weight on test scores that are not precise enough,” he adds.
“I’m not anti-testing. The catch is we need to be more careful,” says Eric Cooper, president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, which works with teachers, school administrators and communities to help improve and transform schools nationwide.
According to Cooper, tests must have “high construct validity,” meaning the items being assessed are important to the lifelong learning of the student.
“If you look at some of the high-stakes tests, what they’re doing is driving memorization,” he says. “We are forcing students to memorize information that we know will be lost because of how the brain works.” He notes the industry that makes the tests has “ballooned” in both size and influence.
“The question is when you assess a student, does any one particular test at one moment in time show the student’s capacity to learn?” he asks.
Heins’ initial recommended improvements: use valid and reliable tests; use standardized tests as one measure of student achievement, not the only measure; make educational decisions that have high impact on children, families and teachers using a minimum of three measures; and use a test where results are available more quickly so findings can inform classroom strategies.
Solutions, Schaeffer adds, are tied to politics. And there is movement. In January, United States Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said at a committee hearing on Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability: “We can and should encourage states and districts to reduce redundant and low-quality tests.…While we carefully consider changes to assessments and accountability to give states and districts the flexibility they need, we can’t forget our obligations to the kids who too often fall through the cracks.”
In April, led by Murray, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee unanimously approved a bill to replace No Child Left Behind. According to supporters of the proposed legislation, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015 would usher in fewer standardized tests with lower consequences in the nation’s approximately 100,000 K-12 public schools. The bill would also introduce locally driven, performance-based assessments.
“That’s moving in the right direction,” Schaeffer declares.
The National School Boards Association called the bill “a welcome sign of progress.” American Federation of Teachers labeled it “an important first step.” The bill, of course, is pending further legislative action.
Notably, Cooper is a fan of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), where paper-and-pencil assessments are conducted periodically in multiple subjects for grades 4, 8, and 12. In 2017, NAEP will begin administering technology-based assessments (using computers and digital tools) for mathematics, reading, and writing with additional subjects added in 2018 and 2019.
Social Factors in Testing
Aside from tests, Cooper points to the students taking them, adding that the existence of social factors — race, class, gender, poverty and other circumstances in the home — must be considered.
“I’m not using poverty as an excuse because there are kids who struggle with poverty and have succeeded because of great teachers, great schools and relentless parents,” says Cooper, an African-American with a doctorate degree from Columbia. “Even though [the parents] have two or three jobs and are not there to help their kids learn, they project high expectations for the kids and the schools do the same. I am talking about the vast majority of students who have intangibles that cannot be assessed.
“There are so many variables that go into test taking,” says Cooper. “Kids are throwing up at some of these high-stakes tests. Kids come into those exams, especially in urban areas, hungry and exhausted because of the challenges that they have because of family circumstances. Some kids need glasses to read and are taking these tests without an understanding of their visual acuity, for example.”
He says a cultural shift of a different type — away from an over-reliance on testing — is necessary.
Rajni Shankar-Brown, Ph.D., associate professor, director of Graduate Education Programs and Jessie Ball DuPont Chair of Social Justice Education at Stetson University, agrees.
“The overwhelming focus on standardized testing in U.S. public schools continues to undermine social equity and the quality of education for millions of students,” she says. “High-stakes testing has devastating effects on our children and youth. The explosion of testing in public schools increases the already existing myriad educational barriers for socially marginalized students, particularly for students living in poverty.”
For greater social equality in the classroom, Cooper calls for developing and teaching a rigorous curriculum that includes instituting culturally responsive instruction based on the cultural experience of the students. He also proposes a “frank and honest discussion about opportunity gaps and the role that institutional racism continues to play in who gets what kind of education and who does not.”
Cooper believes that those national conversations should include topics related to adequate funding; building adequate housing for families challenged by poverty in wealthier communities; creation of good job opportunities; and adequate health care and transportation.
“You don’t select a solution that is targeted on a set of problems without recognition of broader context. That provides nothing more than a Band-Aid at best,” Cooper says.
“It is time to stop spending millions on high-stakes testing that regularly lacks proven validity and results in the vast misuse of data that perpetuates massive inequities,” says Shankar-Brown. “Instead, why not increase funding for teacher pay and support under-resourced schools in economically disadvantaged areas, while expanding art programs and encouraging joy in teaching and learning? Instead of constricting learning to filling in bubble sheets, commit to a more equitable and inclusive world in which our children can thrive.
“It is time, and it is a social justice issue that merits immediate attention,” she declares.
Meanwhile, when it comes to testing, the consequences of missteps can be found in struggling students and, most assuredly, in scenes like that Atlanta courtroom. But don’t expect instant results.
“This is something that we’re going to struggle with for years,” says Cooper.