Testing amok

Great piece in the Times a week ago on how Florida has taken its standardized testing regime to absurd extremes.  The good news is the parents are rebelling against this; we’ll have to wait and see whether state legislators listen:

ROYAL PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida embraced the school accountability movement early and enthusiastically, but that was hard to remember at a parent meeting in a high school auditorium here not long ago.

Parents railed at a system that they said was overrun by new tests coming from all levels — district, state and federal. Some wept as they described teenagers who take Xanax to cope with test stress, children who refuse to go to school and teachers who retire rather than promote a culture that seems to value testing over learning.

Where once these frustrations were voiced in murmurs, this year not only parents but also educators across Florida are rebelling. They have joined anational protest in which states have repealed their graduation test requirements, postponed the consequences of testing for the Common Core — national standards in more than 40 states — and rolled back the number of required exams.

In August, Education Secretary Arne Duncan added to the chorus when hewrote in a blog post that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools,” and that teachers needed more time to adapt to new standards and tests.

Rallying against “unfunded mandates” used to be rallying cry of Republicans.  But apparently, they are fine when Republicans run a state.  In this case, they have called for all the testing to be done on computers, but haven’t done anything to ensure there’s enough computers, leading to some pretty perverse consequences:

The concerns reach well beyond first-year jitters over Florida’s version of Common Core, which is making standards tougher and tests harder. Frustrations also center on the increase this year in the number of tests ordered by the state to fulfill federal grant obligations on teacher evaluations and by districts to keep pace with the new standards. The state mandate that students use computers for standardized tests has made the situation worse because computers are scarce and easily crash.

“This is a spinning-plates act like the old ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” said David Samore, the longtime principal at Okeeheelee Community Middle School in Palm Beach County. “What you are seeing now are the plates are starting to fall. Principals, superintendents, kids and teachers can only do so much. They never get to put any plates down.”…

Much has changed this year in Florida. As part of the federal Race to the Top grant obligation, the state will require end-of-the-year tests for every subject to help evaluate teachers whose pay and job will be tied to scores. In Miami-Dade County, there are 1,600 courses. School districts are obligated to write the course exams, but the Legislature did not give them money for the task, so districts are far behind in developing them.

But there is another requirement that has made testing more difficult in Florida. The state ordered all students, including those in elementary school, to take standardized tests on computers as of this year. But again, the state did not give districts extra money for computers or technology help.

Because schools do not have computers for every student, tests are staggered throughout the day, which translates to more hours spent administering tests and less time teaching. Students who are not taking tests often occupy their time watching movies. The staggered test times also mean computer labs are not available for other students.

So, all those school systems that outperform us… do any of them rely on constant standardized testing used to evaluate teachers and schools?  Pretty sure the answer is no.  Yet, for some reason so many politicians are convinced that this is the key to improving American education despite the lack of any evidence to support the position.  Of course there is a place for standardized testing, but I would argue that we are well past the point where it is doing more harm than good.  There’s also not any evidence that it will do much to improve teacher quality (we already know how to do that, we’re just not doing it).

The bright spot in this mess is that parents and educators are figuring out how destructive this regime of test everything all the time (Dana Goldstein gives an extended example in her book on standardized testing to evaluate 1st grade art teachers– and yes, it is absurd as it sounds).  Time to put some pressure on politicians to take a smarter tack.  Or hey, at least Bill Gates needs to figure this out.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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