High stakes testing has ramifications including ending careers and affecting communities by closing schools. Hence, we need to look carefully at the variables that might affect a student’s performance on a test.
Teachers and principals do not work in a vacuum. They have students with lives outside school. Students live in a real world. The real world affects how they behave and their ability to focus in class. These factors include:
- English being a second language
- The physical and emotional health of the student
- If the student has had enough to eat or adequate time to sleep
- If there are distracting circumstances at home
- If the student has a home
- If the student is supported by tutors or parents who can help with homework
- The availability and quality of the instructional materials used in the classroom
- The size of the class
- School attendance
- Having additional sources of enrichment outside the classroom
State leaders deciding whether to comply with Federal regulations requiring high stakes testing must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of such a make or break role in determining the fate of teachers, principals, schools and communities.
The psychological effects of high stakes testing
Students experience psychological pressure to do well on the tests. Teachers experience psychological pressure to teach to the tests. Principals experience psychological pressure to administer the tests. The result is a much more tense atmosphere. Students will want to do well for a good teacher, if they do poorly, they run the risk of losing a well loved teacher and friend. If the student hears that their school might close due to low test scores, tension in the classroom will grow.
Another example of psychological stress placed on students in terms of test scores is seen by what occurs in the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).
One researcher, Howard Berlak, a Fellow at the Education Policy Center in Boulder Colorado, noted the following during a visit to a KIPP school in San Francisco:
“When I was there children who followed all the rules were given points that could be exchanged for goodies at the school store. Those who resisted the rules or were slackers wore a large sign pinned to their clothes labeled “miscreant.” Miscreants sat apart from the others at all times including lunch, were denied recess and participation in all other school projects and events.. . . . I’ve spent many years in schools. This one felt like a humane, low security prison or something resembling a locked-down drug rehab program for adolescents run on reward and punishments by well-meaning people. Maybe a case can be made for such places, but I cannot imagine anyone (including the Times reporter) sending their kids there unless they have no other acceptable options. What is most disturbing is the apparent belief by KIPP staff and partisans that standardized test scores are the singular and most important measure of a truly good education.”
Jim Horn continues in the book The Gates Foundation and the future of US public schools:
‘Miscreants’ must learn, for instance, that isolation and ostracism from the KIPP family is total as long as the punishment lasts, and children who talk to “miscreants” at or away from school risk the same punishment if apprehended. In fact, it becomes the duty of other students to report offenders who are associating in any way with ‘miscreants’. If they do not, they, too, risk the same punishment…
There is also the matter of students comparing scores on what is considered to be important and measuring themselves against each other on a test score rather than other qualities and abilities that are valued in our society such as creativity, critical thinking, the ability to understand knowledge on a more abstract level, or to be able to develop different solutions to a math problem.
For students who can see different ways to solve a problem or understand there can be many answers to a particular question, the approach of judging this individual based on test scores in math and English can punish rather than celebrate their creativity and ability to develop and use their critical thinking skills.
Focusing on achieving high test scores severely limits the opportunity for a teacher to be creative and share with the students the sense that learning can be a fun and an exciting adventure.
I try to put myself in the shoes of children when considering what is happening in our schools. How would I feel taking so many tests? Would I enjoy going to school or would I begin to feel that learning was nothing more than memorization of boring facts and try to avoid it as much as possible? How would I feel if I had to wear a sign that said “miscreant” on it?
This preoccupation with test scores has intensified to the point where test scores for teachers were published in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times with serious consequences.
The Los Angeles Times came up with its own evaluation criteria by reviewing student’s test scores and judging a teacher’s “effectiveness” on a “value added measure” (VAM). The term Value Added Measure is used to describe how much “value” an individual teacher has added to a student’s yearly growth as measured by standardized reading and math tests. If a student’s test scores improve compared with his or her peers, the teacher has “added value”; if the student’s percentile ranking drops, the teacher is judged to be ineffective.
The Los Angeles Times published the “effectiveness” of approximately 6,000 elementary schoolteachers, including their names, rankings and places of employment. This has led to much humiliation and was in part considered one reason for a valued teacher to commit suicide.
The New York Times published approximately 18,000 names of teachers with their ratings and the New York Post promptly published a story on the “city’s worst teacher” with her photo, Queens’ parents demand answers following teacher’s low grades.
Next up: The Consequences