Pamela Casey Nagler is a longtime Claremont resident, a former student of Claremont public schools and a high school teacher at nearby Montclair High School. She remembers taking one standardized test when she attended Claremont High School – the Ohio Achievement Test – that was essentially an aptitude test to identify an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
It’s the final days of spring and that means Claremont public schools have completed yet another year of standardized testing.
What this should mean, in an education town like Claremont, is that we – taxpayers, parents, educators — will be evaluating our testing programs before we start gearing up for the next round. However, I’m not sure that this will happen. In the past, Claremont has not been very critical of our federally mandated tests. Like our fictional counterparts in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, our children tend to be “above average” and many of us have looked at the tests as an opportunity for our children to score well and score high. It’s an academic “smackdown” where we get to show the stuff we’re made of.
That said, there are plenty of good reasons for us to question the tests.
It’s not news that California schools are cash-strapped. Here in Claremont, we run quite a few fund-raising campaigns to raise money for programs that don’t receive state-funding, but even an affluent community like Claremont can’t raise enough money to fill the gaps. If California was considered a country, we’d be one of the top ten economies in the world, and yet, California public schools finish dead last in the country in our student to teacher ratio, student to counselor ratio, student to librarian ratio. During the Great Recession of 2008-09, California cut 10% of its public education labor force — we slashed 30,000 jobs from our previous 300,000. Though there are promises of an influx of funds in the future, I have not heard of any immediate plans to maneuver California anywhere from its last place finish in these dismal student to educator ratios.
In this climate, it’s important that we receive optimum educational value for every education dollar and that means evaluating the costs of the tests. Which begs the question — how is it that we can continue to find money for these tests, computers for testing, test prep materials and testing seminars that serve our testing culture when our classrooms continue to be underserved?
The new version of the tests is more expensive than they’ve ever been. We’ve replaced the pencil and paper tests with computerized ones. The government mandate to provide computer access to all our students has proven to be enormously expensive for our school districts.
There are certainly sound educational reasons for installing technology in our schools, but it would seem that the best way to meet our school’s technological needs would be by using a measured instructional perspective rather than a testing-giving one. We’ve let the tail wag the dog on this one.
Meanwhile, the mad dash to install technology in our schools has created a windfall for our country’s fast growing Ed-tech corporations, and there are legitimate concerns that pressure from private companies with a profit incentive are driving public education decisions. Los Angeles Unified School District’s recent iPad scandal provides a cautionary tale of money squandered on technology at the expense of other valuable programs.
However, it’s not enough to frame the debate about the standardized tests on the single issue of expense. The bigger issue is whether the tests have educational value.
Unfortunately, this is a difficult debate because few of us know what’s on these tests. The private companies that own the tests have been allowed to operate mostly in secrecy. Teachers who administer the tests are required to sign pre-testing agreements that they will not read them. Students who take the tests are told not to discuss the questions. Testing corporations hire (with our taxpayer dollars) corporations to monitor public schoolchildren on social media to ensure that students are neither sharing nor discussing the test questions.
California Education Codes dictate that the tests must be “valid, reliable and non-biased,” but there are few systems in place to determine that these tests are meeting this criteria, and it is precisely this atmosphere of powerful, enforced silence that prevents the tests from having much educative value.
Commonly, when classroom teachers administer a test, they hand back the graded tests to the students and allow them to debate the questions. If parents have additional questions, they can arrange to meet with a teacher or administrator.
The standardized tests, by contrast, have not set up any platforms to debate the questions or their scoring rubrics. Though testing corporations could publish their tests after they’ve been administered, they have never done so. It is more profitable for the companies to keep the tests secret, and taxpayers, to date, have not demanded public accountability. It is ironic that the tests we use to measure our students, schools, states and nation have not received much, if any, public scrutiny.
At present, if educators or the public want to know what’s in the tests, their best bet is to buy the company’s test preparation booklets or enroll in their workshops. It’s easy to see the profit incentive in operation here. This lack of transparency continues to be the single most perplexing aspect of these tests.
The United States has been conducting these tests for more than a decade and the longitudinal studies are complete. Statistically, the test scores correlate with students’ zip codes, parent incomes and parent education levels. When President Bush ramped up our standardized testing programs with No Child Left Behind, and President Obama continued them, the tests were sold to us as a tool to promote equity. However, in our segregated neighborhoods across the nation as well as in California, the tests have done little to even the playing field for children who live in our socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The schools in these neighborhoods, hard-pressed to raise the scores, result to narrowing the curriculum to teach to the test, while the schools in wealthier neighborhoods have the luxury of continuing to offer a more diverse curriculum.
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