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Are all these tests failing us?

This parent asks some good questions, but maybe she should question why her first grader had five days of standardized testing.

by Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

The standardized tests that thousands of children will be taking over the next month or so are:

A) An attempt to improve education for poor and minority children.

B) A snapshot of student performance in certain subjects.

C) A poor way of measuring overall student achievement.

D) All of the above.

Yes, it's test season here in New Jersey and throughout the country. If your child is in public school, chances are he or she is taking a test. And, while the results may give you a "snapshot" of your child's abilities, they will not reflect your child's full abilities and education. Moreover, those tests may very well make for a stressful, brain-hurting week.

My third-grader is happy that he'll spend three days being tested next week because there's no homework. But I suspect he may change his tune.

As a first-grader, he simply refused to keep going on the fifth day of the IOWA test. "He didn't finish it. He's done," his teacher told me.

"If he's done, he's done," I replied. Then we got the test results. They were, not surprisingly, less than sparkling. They were also so complicated, you need an advanced degree to decipher them.

-- -- --

Testing is the centerpiece of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. The idea is to hold the schools accountable and improve performance. It forces schools to track the performance of minority students and those from low-income families. It threatens school districts with consequences if they don't do well and it allows parents to see how their district compares with other districts in the same income bracket. The goal is to have all schools performing at 100 percent by the year 2014.

It sounds like a good plan, but it's unrealistic. Many teachers and administrators seem to view the tests as a necessary evil. The tests have "placed an enormous burden on our principals and our teachers, but you deal with it," Jeffrey Graber, assistant superintendent of schools in Princeton, told a Parent Teacher Organization. But, he added, "This is not going away. This is here to stay." He noted that teachers devote March through mid-April to testing.

The real danger of the tests is that they could lead to poor teaching, says critic Alfie Kohn, author of "The Schools Our Children Deserve," (Reed Business Information, 1999). He calls the tests "the monster that is swallowing up good education." When teachers teach to the tests, they are not doing their best teaching; when children learn that education is all about doing well on tests, they aren't doing their best learning, he says.

Since state tests are based on New Jersey's "core curriculum," teachers should be teaching to the test every day, says Brian Robinson, director for the Department of Education's Office of Evaluation and Assessment. But they should not be doing what Robinson calls "drill and kill."

-- -- --

While I haven't seen much teaching to the test in my children's classrooms, I have noticed more homework and class work devoted to math and reading preparation. In a recent homework assignment, my son had to read a passage and then write a paragraph using the same phrasing as the question.

"Don't be creative," I told my son. "You have to give them back what's in the story."

The other danger of focusing on tests is that schools might start ignoring all the other parts of education such as music, art, gym and recess. Anything that doesn't appear on a standardized test could be in danger, Kohn argues.

What is most harmful for children are the so-called "high-stakes tests" that are used to determine whether a child can graduate or be promoted to the next grade, says Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a group opposed to standardized testing.

N.J. students must pass a test in their junior year in order to graduate. In some other states, Florida for example, tests may determine if a child can be promoted. With studies showing that children fear getting "left back" second only to losing a parent, that puts tremendous pressure on kids, says Schaeffer.

At the high-school level, "schools would be doing a disservice if they let (students) into the employment world without those skills," argues Jay Doolan, acting assistant commissioner of the state's Division of Educational Programs and Assessment. Doolan says students in New Jersey, where the standards are among the most rigorous in the country, are among the best in national assessments.

-- -- --

The fundamental question is whether tests can lead to significant improvements in our country's schools. They do provide a lot of information about how each group of children is performing by race and income level. But, Schaeffer contends, "There's no evidence that simply raising the bar and yelling improves performance."

Instead, he says, the tests underline the worst-kept secret in education: "There has always been a direct relationship between family income and test scores."

Kohn puts it more bluntly. "What standardized test scores tell us is how big the houses are around the school," he says.

In fact, in Princeton where about 9 percent of elementary students are poor, all four of the elementary schools are high performing, according to the Web site (just4kids.org), which has data on all of New Jersey's public schools.

In Trenton, on the other hand, where 59 percent of elementary school students are poor, 14 out of 20 elementary schools had major areas of concern in language arts, mathematics and science.

Many states have charged that the No Child Left Behind Act doesn't provide enough funding for all this testing and for schools to make real improvements. As a result, several states and the teachers union, the National Education Association, are suing the federal government.

-- -- --

As parents, we have several choices regarding our kids and tests. We can:

A) Keep our kids home during testing.

B) Make sure our kids get enough sleep and a good breakfast and send them on their way.

C) Urge our kids to do their best but not to stress.

D) Use the tests for a "snapshot" of our children, but take them with a major grain of salt.

Jeanne Jackson DeVoe is a journalist who lives in Princeton. E-mail her at jeanne@devoecom.com

— Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
The (New Jersey) Times
2006-03-21


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