Adults Need To Deal With “High Stakes” Testing

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Those in charge of educating our children have been playing the long game with the public’s willingness to drop rules and protocols in an ongoing effort to remove objective results and accountability from the system.  The latest casualty is “high stakes testing”, as the State School Board has capitulated to School Superintendent Richard Woods’ request to remove the tests as a meaningful part of students’ grades. 

The policy will be made final later this month due to a required 30-day comment period. This will mean for the second year in a row, students won’t face meaningful standardized tests.

 In reality, this isn’t about the kids.  This is about adults. 

It’s about the educators who lobby against these tests being used, perhaps unfairly, in their review process.  It’s also about the parents who “know” their kids are above average in every way, and project the pressure onto their kids rather than have to face honest assessments themselves.  These are the parents who then complain the loudest to educators, reinforcing the burdens the tests place on the system.

Pushback on testing began after the No Child Left Behind Act – a bipartisan bill shepherded through Congress by Senator Ted Kennedy and signed by President George W. Bush – demanded that school systems identify performance of students by subgroups.  Suddenly, school systems that were majority white in affluent areas found that when adjusted for racial and income disparities, they weren’t performing as well as they had been telling themselves. School systems that were chronically underperforming were forced to change their status quo.

Standardized tests became the enemy because they began to matter.  Bit by bit, they’ve been undermined as unfair, unnecessary, and even mean. 

Lost in these characterizations is the achievement and mastery – or lack thereof – of knowledge that students need to achieve.  Tests should not be about the self-esteem of the child, but about skills they will need to thrive and be employed in a 21st century economy. 

Parents don’t make their kids eat vegetables instead of candy because they are being mean.  They do it because what they need is more important than what is wanted.  It’s the function of adults to provide what children under their care need – even when that is difficult for the adults.

We already have initial results in from fall math and reading tests by the non-profit NWEA.  Math scores in grades three through 8th have declined five to ten percentage points from the same cohorts one year ago.  National Public Radio’s Corey Turner, however used the results to trumpet the “positive news” that students are not yet falling behind in reading. 

There is, as he notes, a caveat as “not all students are represented in the data”.  Only about three out of four students took the test this fall, meaning about a quarter of the sample isn’t accounted for in the fall numbers. 

Who are the missing students?  Again from NPR: “…these children are “more likely to be black and brown, more likely to be from high-poverty schools and more likely to have lower performance in the first place.”

The pandemic is, once again, leaving children behind.  No spin of “positive news” is going to change that.

Issues of social justice and equality have dominated non-pandemic news this year.  The greatest tool America has to close the economic inequality gap is our public school system.  And yet, the gap is getting worse.  We’re just eliminating the evidence that would prove it.

Allowing a child to progress through a school system unable to read, unable to do math, or to even disappear for a year or two because of a pandemic creates the highest stakes of all.   Adults must quit projecting their self-esteem issues onto the students and deal with the reality in front of us.

We’re failing our kids in the worst ways, at the worst time.  Adults need to own this problem, and fix it.


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