By Debora Banner, member-Community Voices for Public Education and former teacher and administrator
Illustration by Mobsolete

Around the country there is a growing concern among parents and teachers about the over-testing of our children, most especially regarding “high stakes” testing. High stakes refers to the use of students’ results on multiple-choice tests on just a single day to stigmatize and punish students, teachers, schools and communities.

In Texas, schools can use the results of state STAAR tests alone to retain students in grades 5 and 8. HISD is one of a small number of school districts to use STAAR test results to retain students in all grades three through eight. This policy is absurd as even the companies that
develop and sell the tests insist that they should never be used as a sole measure when making a high stakes decision about a student. The research on retention is also clear that it usually harms students.

These same tests are also being used to make high stakes decisions about teachers. In HISD, teachers can be terminated for poor student test results or awarded bonuses for good student test results. While this may sound reasonable, it is far from it. Not only does this base decisions on the results of a high stakes test given on single day or two, it ignores the many factors that are outside of teachers’ control, especially poverty, and whether or not students have disabilities or are English language learners. These are factors shown to have a much greater influence on student test scores than teachers do. This policy acts as a powerful disincentive for teachers to work with our students with the highest needs.

Instead of punishing schools, students and teachers with high stakes testing, we should consider the Finnish model, which invests at least 1.4 times more on educating its highest need students. But alas, we turn good sense on its head and test our poorest students more and invest less in poor communities and schools.

Standardized tests are also used to label schools as failing or not with punitive consequences. Schools are threatened with staff transfers (creating more instability) and even closure if they don’t show improvement on test performance immediately.

Furthermore, when high stakes such as these are attached to standardized tests, classroom instruction changes in negative ways. Much of the school day becomes devoted to “test prep” and “practice” tests which drill students in the specific formats of multiple choice test questions rather than the higher level thinking needed for what students will face in the real world. These tests do not measure the skills we want students to learn, including creativity and complex problem solving.

And the financial costs of high stakes testing are huge. The state of Texas will spend nearly half a billion dollars between 2010 and 2015 on STAAR testing alone. This does not include the cost of test prep materials and textbooks sold by the same company (Pearson) that develops the tests.

It is no wonder that parents and teachers argue that more time is being spent on testing and test prep than on real teaching and learning. Standardized tests may have a small role to play in assessing student learning. However, it is important to remember that they provide only a small snapshot of student learning. But what standardized tests predict best is a student’s zip code and socioeconomic status. Poor students from poor neighborhoods do not perform as well as those from more affluent neighborhoods.

In May 2012, as a result of a campaign by Community Voices for Public Education, the HISD School Board unanimously passed a Resolution Against High Stakes Standardized Testing that had been endorsed by the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards. Yet HISD has not lived up to the spirit of the resolution.

Across the country, however, there is a growing movement to put testing back in its place. This past spring, there was a tremendous increase in the number of students whose parents “opted them out” of state tests; whose parents refused to have their children take state tests. In New York, in 2014, more than 60,000 students opted out. In some schools in high-performing districts in New York, more than 30% of students opted out. Even the Republican candidate for governor- Rob Astorino, opted his children out of the New York State high stakes tests.

This past month the Vermont State Board of Education adopted a Statement and Resolution on Assessment and Accountability stating that “…standardized testing is an inadequate and often unreliable measure of both student learning and educator effectiveness…(and)… the over-emphasis on standardized testing has caused considerable collateral damage in areas such as narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing love of learning, pushing students out of school….”

Another report this week, “Fixing Our National Accountability System,” from the National Center on Education and the Economy “calls for replacing the current system of test-based accountability with a system much more likely to result in improvements in student performance. [It] points out that the current system has not only failed to improve the performance of the at-risk students it was designed to help, but has alienated the best of our current teachers and created an environment in which able young people choosing careers are less likely to choose teaching.”

It is time to put an end to this culture of testing and labeling. Standardized tests should be used for diagnostic purposes only, not to make critical decisions that even the test makers agree they were not designed to do. Lawmakers and school officials should;

  • Stop the high-stakes use of standardized tests;
  • Reduce the number of standardized exams, saving time and money for real learning; and
  • Replace multiple-choice tests with performance-based assessments and evidence of learning from students’ ongoing classwork.

This is the beginning of a new school year. It is time to let teachers teach and students learn without the threat of being judged on multiple-choice questions given on a single day.