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Pure Onsense

Opting Out of the Testing Madness

Scott Zuke

(5/2015) Last month over one hundred thousand public school students across New York spent hours sitting and staring into space while their less fortunate classmates trudged through a six-day battery of standardized tests. They were excused from taking the mandatory statewide assessments by their parents, members of the fast-growing "opt-out movement," which argues that the government and school systemís obsession with high-stakes testing has gotten out of control.

New Yorkís testing regimen isnít unique. Like most states, it is based on the Common Core standards, which have fueled controversy since they swept across the country over the last five years. Political opponents see the federal government strong-arming the states into adopting a national curriculum, but so far that has not been enough to mobilize a revolt in most places.

New York, however, has jumped ahead of the pack by holding teachers accountable for the test results before there has even been time to determine if Common Core is an effective policy. Governor Cuomo infuriated teachersí unions earlier this year by announcing that test scores would count for 50% of teacher evaluations, even though the connection between studentsí test performance and quality of instruction is still murky.

New Yorkís case may be a political grudge match in the guise of education reform, but itís riding on the back of fundamentally flawed policy of mandatory testing and accountability that has caused severe harm to American education for over a decade. As education reporter Anya Kamenetz put it in her recent book, "high-stakes standardized tests are stunting childrenís spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our countryís future competitiveness."

Standardized testing has been around a long time as a tool for gauging school performance. The Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) that I took growing up didnít even produce individual student scores. In the early 2000s, though, policymakers were swept up by the fantasy that national standards for assessment and rigid accountability requirements for educators to meet "adequate yearly progress" could bring 100% of students up to grade-level proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

That utopian goal had to be adjusted and eventually abandoned, but the underlying premise of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that mandatory testing and accountability measures are effective policy has persisted despite little evidence to support it. In fact the data showed that NCLB failed to raise scores or narrow the performance gap despite extensive teaching to the test.

Yet school systemsí obsession with testing has increased, not decreased, and it is taking a terrible toll on an entire generation of Americaís children. "The near-universally despised bubble tests are now being used to decide the fates of not only individual students but also their teachers, schools, districts, and entire state education systems," Kamenetz writes, "even though these tests have little validity when applied this way."

All of the pressure laid on the studentsí shoulders drives them and their parents to tears and anxiety. Teachers worry about their jobs depending on scores that they cannot really control. Schools find ways to cheat the system, hiding the scores of students with special needs among those of the general population or, as seen in Atlanta, by systematically changing studentsí test answers.

There is an enormous opportunity cost to all of this testing. A report by the American Federation of Teachers in 2013 that looked at the test preparation behaviors of two school districts found that "If testing were abandoned, one school district in this study could add from 20 to 40 minutes of instruction to each school day for most grades. The other school district would be able to add almost an entire class period to the school day for grades 6-11. Additionally, in most grades, more than $100 per test-taker could be reallocated to purchase instructional programs, technology or to buy better tests."

The problem isnít only the statewide tests either, but also the increasing time and money being spent preparing college-bound students for the SAT and ACT. These tests are supposed to indicate how well students will perform in their first year of college (although the statistical correlation is known to be fairly weak), but parents figured out that their children didnít need to be better students to get higher scores on the tests. They just needed to be trained in how to take them.

Private tutoring and commercial test prep classes caught on among anxious and affluent families, grew into a multibillion dollar industry, and eventually spread into public schools, replacing education time with learning ways to trick the test into thinking students are better educated.

Kamenetz ties the over reliance on individual test scores to an error called "Goodhartís law," which states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. "If you give people a single number to hit, they will work toward that number to the detriment of all other dimensions of success," she writes. "The more you turn up the pressure to hit that number, the worse the distortion and corruption gets."

The problem is that test scores are a simple, digestible, seemingly objective, and therefore powerful metric for policymakers to wield. Itís difficult to capture just what is lost by putting them at the center of school evaluation and education policy, but I will conclude with a personal story.

One of the most valuable experiences from high school for me was journalism class, through which I had the opportunity to build a wide range of practical skills, from web design and page layout software to writing, editing, and photography, as well as gain leadership experience serving as editor-in-chief. It was in that capacity that I met the editor of this newspaper, leading eventually to this column. More than any other class, I can draw a line from that experience all the way through college, grad school, and to my present profession. It saddens me to this day that the year after I graduated, that class was cut to make room for an SAT prep course.

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