Education Reform: Stop the Standardized Testing Insanity!

Kyle Curtis Facebook

"They pass online assessments as this great thing, but we’re pretty much just putting kids in front of computers all day. Certainly, online learning and assessments have a place in today’s education system—the question is, where is that place?”

Education Reform: Stop the Standardized Testing Insanity!

On April 18th, students at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland walked out of their standardized state assessment test. According to a release posted on the website of the PPS Student Union, this action was undertaken to protest the “broken education system in Oregon and throughout the country, that continues to be commodified by standardized education.” This came on the heels of a similar action taken in March at Grant High School who criticized the tests as a “waste of resources that should be directly spent in the classroom.”

The test protested by students was the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) test, conducted annually to students in the third grade and higher. Along with these state assessment tests, students also participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” and high school students also must pass the Graduate Requirement Test (GRT). With so many required tests taken simultaneously or back-to-back, it is understandable that students complain about the focus being on “passing and exceeding than you are of absorbing the material.”

All of us have completed a standardized test of one form or another as we made our way through the public education system—what’s the big deal? Is this simply a matter of “kids these days” being unwilling to put forth the effort to even bother taking tests they know they are not going to pass? Or does the concerted resistance by high school students in the Portland area—and throughout the country—indication broader, systemic issues that plague our public education system?

“Kids aren’t just numbers, measured solely by assessments,” says Susan Barrett, a co-founder of Oregon Save Our Schools. Barrett’s organization has expressed concerns about the increased reliance on standardized tests in Governor Kitzhaber’s education reforms passed in 2011, which resulted in the creation of the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) and placed the Governor in charge of the state’s schools. “When does it make sense to have people less involved with our public schools, and cut out community involvement?” asks Barrett.

The path that eventually led to the creation of the OEIB was circuitous, beginning with an Oregon Education Investment Design Team hand-picked by the Governor in the spring of 2011. This design team was treated to a series of presentations by the Duncan Wyse from the Oregon Business Council, who recommended the mandatory statewide implementation of “outcomes based budgets” and “proficiency based education.” According to an OEIT report[NOTE: the link provides you to a History of Education Reform in Oregon compiled by Oregon Save Our Schools] on outcomes-based budgets for public schools, “The state will be the ‘buyer’ of outcomes and the schools will be ‘sellers’ of outcomes.” This mind-view, rooted in the private-sector philosophy one would expect from the Oregon Business Council, ignores the traditional moral responsibility of public schools to serve as society’s great equalizer. Obviously, the emphasis on mandatory “proficiency based education” translates into the increased reliance on standardized tests.

The OEIT convened a "Learn Works" meeting of 30 participants in September of 2011, which Barrett attended and set off the initial red flags for her regarding the increased emphasis on standardized tests. “I remember the first two speakers were from Stand for Children, and they were pushing an online-based computer testing program,” Barrett recalls. Up until that point, Stand for Children had only involved itself with efforts to increase funding for schools and limit class sizes. Barrett was confused by Stand for Children’s testimony in favor of the testing software. “I asked myself ‘What is this? Is this a separate organization doing some sort of sales pitch?”

(Stand for Children Oregon denies providing any presentations in support of standardized testing at the September 2011 LearnWorks meeting. According to Sue Levin, the Executive Director for Stand, the organization had two official representatives, neither of which presented in support of standardized tests. Although other Stand members attended, they did not represent the organization and Levin states that she "has no idea" whether they presented on standardized tests. Regardless, Levin points out the efforts the organization did in collaboration with then-State Rep. Suzanne Bonamici to pass legislation that would allow students that pass OAKS the first time--the test is conducted three times--to be excluded from the next two rounds of testing.)

This was Barrett’s introduction into the increased emphasis of standardized testing. Barrett believes the promises of increased use computer-based standardized tests aren’t matched with the actual results. “[Proponents of testing] rhetoric sounds great, that this can all be accomplished at an individual’s pace of learning,” Barrett says. “The only way for a student to learn at an individual pace is for teachers to be able to address the needs of kids. They pass online assessments as this great thing, but we’re pretty much just putting kids in front of computers all day. Certainly, online learning and assessments have a place in today’s education system—the question is, where is that place?”

The problems regarding the current high stakes of increased reliance on standardized tests are compounded with the ridiculous manner in which they are administered and the expectations that schools are to meet, particularly for “priority” schools. Gresham’s Davis Elementary is one of the most challenged public schools in the state, with a free-and-reduced lunch rate of nearly 95 percent. And yet, Davis had received accolades for its test scores, identified by the state as a ‘champion’ school from 2009-2011.

“Suddenly, over night, Davis was a priority school,” says Allen Koshewa, a Grade 4-5 teacher at Davis Elementary. As a priority school, Davis requires a number of interventions by the state to improve the school’s outcomes, resulting in Koshewa spending a good portion of his creating reports as he does designing lesson plans. Koshewa points out he could have the exact same curriculum and lesson plans at a non-priority school in inner southeast Portland without the required reports he currently submits, but at Davis he needs to spend extra time justifying his curriculum that meet the state's standards-based "learning targets" with each lesson plan.

What caused the reversal of fortune for Davis Elementary? “Our test scores hit a ceiling and couldn’t keep rising,” explains Keshowa. Despite having similar demographics as other schools, the significant number of refugee students at Davis from such countries as Somalia, Burma, Nepal, Zambia, and Iraq pose added difficultuies. According to Keshowa, “The research shows that it takes non-English speaking students seven to ten years before reaching the 50 percentile on a standardized test. But they are expected to math by their first spring, and to pass reading by the second year. ”

With increased budget cuts and directives from the state mandated onto districts and schools, teachers are overly stressed to ensure that students are able to continually meet the designated benchmarks for each test. These demands result in students in grades as low as kindergarten being removed from class and plopped in front of a computer for testing purposes. “Recently, a kindergarten teacher at Faubion Elementary bent my ear about the requirements she’s faced with,” says state Rep. Lew Frederick (D-North Portland). As Frederick explains, “The Early Learning Councils in the recent reforms are set up for assessments of kindergarteners, but some schools are implementing them early. The problem, I feel, is that it prepares them to do nothing other than take test after test after test.”

Rep. Frederick wonders how this increased reliance on rote test-taking will result in creative, inquisitive, and skilled students. When pointed out that students will develop test-taking skills, Frederick responds with, “That is something I have never heard any leader of a corporation or industry say they look for in prospective employees. And yet, we’ve created this system to just churn them right out.”

With these concerns about the outsized impact on the education system caused by the over-reliance on standardized testing, Rep. Frederick entered the current legislative session with a three pieces of legislation designed to take a strong look at the systemic issues plaguing Oregon’s public education system. HB 2664 requires a comprehensive, one-time report conducted by the state Department of Education that examines the fiscal, administrative, and educational impacts of standardized tests. In a sense, the purpose of HB 2664 is to determine whether the charges made by the Cleveland High School students—that these tests are a “waste of resources”—have some sort of basis in reality. “How much time, money, psychic power do these tests consume?” asks Frederick. “Are they effective? We don’t even know!” Currently, HB 2664 is sitting in the House Rules Committee.

Rep. Frederick’s other bills include HB 2665, which would require a study by the Education Department of the impact of poverty on education in Oregon, and HB 2666 which seeks to ensure the privacy of data for students that take these standardized tests. Although studies demonstrate the negative impact of poverty on education, HB 2665 would only address the distributions of the State School Fund, the opportunities to learn across neighborhoods and economic circumstances, and the efforts taken to address disparities of opportunities in off-school hours. This bill was passed by a unanimous vote this past week. HB 2666 would limit the ability of student test score data from being collected, shared, and sold to outside third-parties. HB 2666 is currently sitting in the House Rules Committee.

“We’ve had high-stakes testing for almost 20 years, and the impact has been minimal,” Frederick says. “We want comprehensive education for all of our kids, and that’s not going to happen solely through increasing the testing.”

EDIT: To correct timelines and information, May 1, 12:55 pm

EDIT: To include clarifications provided by Stand for Children Oregon, May 2, 2:00 pm

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