A Tempest Over Testing

In Much Ado by Catherine Landisleave a COMMENT

That was a waste of time,” my friend’s grandson exclaimed after this year’s TNReady test nose-dived into ignominy. He wasn’t talking about the test; he was talking about his entire 7th grade year. Seventh graders may not be our most reliable school critics, but many educators share his concern about the outsized role standardized testing plays in today’s classrooms, and the TNReady debacle, (starting with the online version crashing followed by the paper version delivery failure), could serve as a metaphorical hand raised and waving.

Governor Haslam and state education leaders propose to “fix” the problem by contracting with Pearson Education to score salvageable tests and by finding a new testing company for next year. I’d prefer they find a pause button to push long enough to answer some questions. Why, exactly, are we doing all this testing? Who is it helping? Who is it hurting? And if the goal of education is to educate, are we sure this high stakes testing regimen is working?

Increasing numbers of educators say no. National critic Alfie Kohn has said, “Invoking such terms as tougher standards, accountability, and raising the bar, people with little understanding of how children learn have imposed a heavy-handed, top-down, test-driven version of school reform that is lowering the quality of education in this country. “ A local teacher is more blunt: “Claims about what these tests will do are just wrong.”

Politically, both left and right oppose high stakes testing but for different reasons. The right rails against federal intrusion. The left questions the validity of the standards. Critics coming from left, right, and center charge that current testing practices prevent teachers from using their training to develop effective and engaging curriculums, do not accurately measure the progress of students or the effectiveness of teachers, steal valuable instructional time for test preparation, and discriminate against poor and minority students.

Testing supporters say we need standards, and they are right. But standards, says University of Tennessee Associate Professor of English Education Jud Laughter, must correlate with good teaching practices. Speaking for himself, (and not the university) he adds, “Research has shown that using test scores as an incentive does not work. It lowers morale, raises anxiety, and makes the kids crazy.”

The problem with the standards, says former educator Gloria Johnson—now running for state House District 13, partly on a platform to improve education—is they were not teacher-driven. “They are developmentally inappropriate for young children,” she explains, “and, personally, I think the upper-level standards are too low.” Said one of many teachers I spoke to who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, “What planet do people live on where every kid has to be at the same level in every grade?”

Asking good teachers to teach to a test appears to be like expecting a carpenter to do a job with half the tools. So who are the good teachers? Testing supporters say we need accountability and, again, they are right, but what if these tests are not accurate measurements? Studies show only a small percentage of a student’s score can be attributed to the teacher; the rest is determined by other factors such as poverty. Laughter says he can predict a school’s scores if told the value of neighborhood homes and average parental income and education level. A recent Northwestern University economist’s study showed greater student success attributed to teachers fostering non-cognitive skills than those boosting test scores.

No one wants to defend TNReady, but standardized testing in general has plenty of defenders, including Knox County school board member Karen Carson who qualified her support by saying, “as along as it is aligned with the curriculum.” As a parent, she says, she appreciated an objective way to look at how her kids were doing and believes the movement against high-stakes testing is plagued by a lot of misinformation. “If I want to believe testing is effective, I can find studies that show that,” she says. “And if I want to believe testing is ineffective, I can find studies that show that.”

No doubt she’s right about studies, but that anti-testing movement is growing, with some parents, including one Nashville state representative, opting their children out of taking the tests. Fueling it is suspicion over the amount of money being made by testing companies and investors in the business of privatizing public education. It’s a story that mirrors the saga of electronic medical records (EMR), another data-mining venture gone awry. On paper, EMR should make it easier for medical professionals to access records, reducing errors and saving time and money. But EMR companies developed expensive software systems that don’t work efficiently in the real world and don’t communicate with other systems, creating more problems than they solve. Like EMR, standardized testing might be a super idea, but both have been hijacked by what I call the “businessification” of America, when market solutions and values are forced onto areas where they don’t fit, like education and health care. Turns out, a whole lot of people who aren’t accountable for how their systems work are making a heck of a lot of money. And in a cynical twist, they make even more when they “fix” problems they create.

Standards and accountability are essential. Data is useful. But we should know whether the money made by testing companies and privatization advocates is preventing us from answering one simple question: Is this working? Maybe it is. But it’s also stirring up a storm of controversy nationwide. I urge parents to dive in. Learn as much as you can, closely evaluate sources of the information, talk to your school board members and state legislators. Our children are in the middle of a giant experiment. Let’s make sure the goal is education and not an investment opportunity for people who hope to make money off public schools.

With Much Ado, Catherine Landis examines how political decisions and social trends affect the lives of the people around her. She is particularly interested in issues concerning feminism, civil rights, education, the environment, and immigration reform. A former newspaper reporter, she has published two novels, Some Days There’s Pie (St. Martin’s Press) and Harvest (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). She lives in Knoxville.

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