By Teachers, For Teachers
If you were to ask your average teacher what they think about standardized testing, you’d better brace yourself for a variety of passionate answers. Some might entirely disavow standardized testing as frivolous and useless wastes of precious instructional time; others might acknowledge that it provides an otherwise inaccessible comparative of students’ performances. Others might struggle with finding relevance in the perks, yet admit that scores can prove useful in ways other assessments might not.
But like them or not, standardized testing is here to stay. Or in the words of New York State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. last month, “We’re not going backwards. We’re not retreating.”
Often the individuals most interested in conducting standardized tests are those at the top of the educational pyramid: School boards, superintendents, elected and unelected Washington officials, legislators and universities. And they have fair reason to prefer this testing – local and state school board members cannot sit in the classrooms and assess thousands of students themselves. If there are set standards, then there must be – in their eyes – a set way of measuring how well students are achieving towards those standards. Additionally, the more students who take standardized tests across a state or the nation, the more educational decisionmakers can compare districts and states to one another. This is a preference for most universities, who tend to trust a nationalized test as an indicator of student ability much more than their class rank and GPA.
Every state is allowed to devise its own standards – most of which by now have adopted the Common Core State Standards – and every state has its own method of testing students of nearly all ages. As the requirements under the Common Core State Standards transition from the pilot phase to official implementation this fall, many across the nation note that a rigorous testing schedule is required. Two main testing consortia – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium – are producing Common Core standardized tests that will be most likely be adopted by many states in the 2014-2015 school year. The PARCC assessment consists of computer-based testing in grades 3-11 and calls for a number of “shifts” in current instructional practices.
The whole philosophy behind standardized tests is so that students and adults at all levels can measure student learning progress against a set of shared expectations. What this ultimately means is that while teachers do not have to “teach to the test,” all standardized tests do demand that teachers adequately prepare their students to meet the tests’ expectations. The Common Core insists that all instructional and content decisions will be maintained at the state and local levels; however, the Common Core Standards feature a preoccupation with skills. Teachers must equip their students with these standardized skills to demonstrate students’ proficiency and future readiness.
The prominence of the Common Core in relation to state testing and instruction hints at the increasing role the federal government has played in education. The No Child Left Behind Act had already “dramatically expanded the role of standardized testing in American education, requiring students in grades 3-8 be tested every year in reading and math,” summarizes a PBS overview. And more recently, President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative has rewarded states successful in a number of educational areas, most notably by using student achievement tests as measures of state progress. Diana Ravitch, an NYU professor and critic of recent educational reforms, has noted that because teacher evaluations are tethered to test scores, “Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system,” as well as “less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education.” While her criticisms represent a more skeptical perspective on educational reform, she validly notes that there is a nationalized push for standardized testing, and that tests bears more weight than previous decades.
The term “high-stakes testing” has increased in frequency as many realize that more and more seems to ride on what answers students produce on their achievement tests. Not only are many states tying teacher evaluations and pay to student testing, but administrators and entire schools are also evaluated based on student test scores. Entire schools have been closed based on student proficiency scores on state tests. And the Race to the Top initiative doles out limited funds to states competing in its program – so state funding of education is linked to student testing.
In short, standardized testing over the last decade has become more frequent, more nationalized, and more “high stakes.” For the near future, especially as Common Core roots deeper into educational policy, these trends are most likely to continue. However, as standardized tests seem to assume more prominence across the educational landscape, there is a growing trend of skepticism from teachers, parents, and constituents. In 2013, Texas led the way by passing House Bill 5 unanimously in the House and Senate, stating, “To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing, the Texas House has heard you.” In 2014, Indiana became the first state to abandon the Common Core and replace it with its own state standards and methods of assessment.
There are huge companies, huge sums of dollars, huge policymakers, and huge stakes for the educational decisions being made regarding standardized tests. While some like the NY Educational Commissioner proclaim “We will not retreat,” others remain circumspect. What most of us can agree on, however, is that we’re in it for the students, and since standardized tests need to play an appropriate role in the students’ lives, it’s worth it to have an appropriate conversation about what that role should be.
What do you think about the future of standardized testing? What other issues, like business, technology, culture, and politics do you see changing the testing landscape in the next decade? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.