Over the recent decade, conversations in education have been dominated by the topic of test scores. Standardized tests are currently lauded as “the answer” to school accountability, higher student achievement, and improved teacher quality. Claims of “objective measures,” and “scientific evaluations” promise to “fix” our schools and improve learning for children once and for all. Most realize the absurdity of this “guarantee” yet they are consoled by the claim ‘scientifically researched’ – however dubious. The standardized testing fib unquestioned and unchallenged imposes serious and lasting consequences for our schools and our children.
Myth #1: “The CSAP ensures accountability”
The purpose of the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) is to measure a student’s individual performance on isolated discreet variables. Colorado misuses the test as an indicator of an entire schools’ performance. There is no test, standardized or otherwise, which measures the quality of a school. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and School Accountability Reports (SAR’s) rely solely on test scores then impose destructive consequences. Current accountability systems ignore all other factors that contribute to a successful school.
True accountability is realized from an informed and engaged citizenry. Through state and local school board elections, parents and citizens ensure that schools uphold the quality and values commonly desired. High stakes testing in fact reduces accountability in that it transfers authority to privately owned test publishers who operate without oversight or responsibility to children or the public.
The crux of school reform lies in our ability as parents, teachers, business leaders, community organizers, and everyday citizens to accept responsibility in directing our own future and commit ourselves whole heartedly to our children – all children.
Myth #2: “Testing raises expectations for students”
CSAP and other high stakes tests represent a fraction of what students should be learning over the course of a school year. Many of the questions must be scored by the computer, reducing thinking to simple single solutions and the test must be generalized enough for thousands of students so that higher order thinking and critical reasoning are diminished. One session on a third grade reading CSAP test consists of 42 items; 34 represent multiple choice questions worth 34 points total, and 8 require short answer responses worth 18 points.i
Come on, tests don’t increase expectations. In fact, tests reinforce the lowest common denominator. The emphasis on “high test scores” negates the intrinsic value of learning and trivializes the educational process.
Parents, teachers, and communities are the only ones who can determine expectations for children and improve the quality of their learning. We must expect a great deal more from our children then correct answers on a multiple choice test; our schools must provide a challenging, meaningful and personalized educational experience and our communities must work together to engender a sense of purpose and responsibility in our future citizens.
Myth #3: “Testing improves achievement”
According to the promoters of high stakes testing, higher annual test scores are an indicator of “improved achievement.” In fact, annual increases in test scores are more often the result of more time attention and resources being spent preparing for that test. If the focus were devoted to advancing teaching and learning, then it would be teaching and learning that is improved. “While students show consistent improvement on these state exams, the opposite is typically true of their performance on other, independent measures of academic achievement.”ii Student CSAP scores have remained relatively flat over the seven years of mandated testing.iii
Test scores are merely a reflection of which schools serve the most disadvantaged – and conversely advantaged – populations. Lisa Piscopo in her Ph.D. thesis developed an equation to predict CSAP scores. Using the indicator of “number of children on free and reduced lunch”, she predicted CSAP scores in 240 elementary, middle and high schools with 81% accuracy.iv Additional studies have found income to be the greatest indicator of performance on standardized tests.v
The real tragedy is an accountability system that diverts critical resources away from real solutions such as smaller class sizes, teacher training; counseling, prevention, and early intervention; technology and curriculum resources; and after-school programs. These are the elements that improve learning and contribute to relevant student achievement such as increased graduation rates, higher college enrollments and vocational training, and healthy citizens.
An actual commitment from government leaders to close the achievement gap and improve opportunities for poor and minority children, would mean a resolution to school funding discrepancies and a school finance model that ensures adequate and equitable funding. David Berlinger writes, “Regardless of what anyone claims about student and school characteristics, opportunity to learn is the single most powerful predictor of student achievement.”vi High-stakes testing reduces opportunities for America’s children, encourages simple, narrow, and linear learning,vii and creates a classroom climate of tension and fear that weakens student’s ability to perform and experience personal and relevant achievement.
Myth #4: “Standardized tests are scientifically accurate”
School critics and politicians often use the words ‘scientifically researched’ and ‘objective measure.’ The general population wrongly accepts that standardized testing is some empirical measure, and that tests constructed outside of the classroom far removed from the subjectivity of educational professionals will at last be able to accurately measure knowledge. We falsely imply that technology with its computer generated answer sheets and indiscriminate shaded bubbles possess the critical absolutism needed to eradicate the inherent flaws of human judgment. There is nothing empirical about a standardized test. It is written, evaluated, and graded by human beings, just as capable of error as the subjects they are attempting to measure.
Considering that there has NEVER been any independent analysis or audit to provide validation or verification of CSAP, the question of accuracy remains unknown.viii Cut scores are subjectively determined by testing officials and essay and short answer questions are judged by poorly trained, temporary workers, with little or no educational experience, earning low wages and working long days to meet deadlines.ix This makes standardized test scores far less informed than the judgments of professional teachers trained in assessment and evaluation and experienced in educating students.
Gerald Bracey, in an article, “The Condition of Public Education” explains, “In recent years, the four testing companies that dominate the market have experienced serious breakdowns in quality control.” In May of 2000, NCS Pearson made multiple errors in scoring, assigning 47,000 Minnesota students lower scores than they deserved.x The company incorrectly lowered multiple-choice scores for 12,000 Arizona students, and was forced to re-score 204,000 tests in Washington because the state found the scores too generous. One error by McGraw-Hill resulted in nearly 9,000 students in New York City being mistakenly assigned to summer school in 1999.xi Most recently, 4,000 students who took the SAT college aptitude exam in October, 2006 received incorrectly low scores because of problems with the scanning of their answer sheets.xii “Testing specialists and test publishing administrators argue that educators and politicians must share the blame for the rash of testing errors because they are asking too much of the industry.”xiii They are correct, we are asking and expecting too much of test publishers.
Myth #5: “Testing guarantees that children are learning the standards”
Limitations in the construction and format of standardized tests such as testing time, printing, and grading the measure, prohibit any in-depth probing of a student’s true understanding. In the zeal to quantify student learning, tests are crammed with content and sub content areas to be measured, none of which are measured thoroughly or completely.
Under the shroud of high-stakes testing curriculum is being narrowed to cover the subject represented only on the test and learning is restricted to memorization of facts, simple single solutions and vacuous thinking. Eve Baker, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation writes, “Testing has now become a substitute for the curriculum instead of simply a measure of it.”xiv
Every child thinking and performing the same is NOT the sign of a quality education. Graduating a generation with the exact same knowledge set, identical skills, and devoid of imagination and creativity will not prepare children to succeed in the 21st century or meet the demands of a rapidly changing global world. Decades of research and experience has taught educators how the brain learns and the importance of modifying instruction in order to engage students, assess knowledge and ability, and cultivate the unique gifts and talents of each individual child.
Requiring every child to conform to a preconceived standard of achievement undermines the principles of a democracy, compromises intellectual development, and minimizes the imagination, diversity, and freedom that have defined the United States of America. Marie Wirsing, my friend and mentor once said, “If we do not begin now to promote genuine intellectual freedom in our public school classrooms – among our teachers and our students – the claim that we as a nation stand for “freedom” will be hollow.”xv
Myth #6 “Standardized testing helps the United States to be competitive with other industrialized nations.”
In 1983 The Nation At Risk Report stated, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Twenty four years later and more than a decade after standardization and high-stakes testing the New Commission on the skills of the American Workforce reported this, “Thirty years ago the United States could lay claim to having 30% of the world’s population of college students. Today that proportion of college students has fallen to 14 percent as is continuing to fall.”
Sweden, Finland, and Norway who are leading in International test scores, are also the countries who dedicate the greatest percentage of their gross domestic product (13%-18%) to social expenditures such as education, child protective services, and children’s health care. Although the United States has the second highest rate of childhood poverty of industrialized nations (a child poverty rate five times more than Nordic countries) we have the lowest percentage of social expenditures – around four percentxvixvii. Other OECD countries that spend more on both poverty reduction and family-friendly policies have done so while maintaining competitive rates of productivity and income growth. While other industrialized countries are expanding their investments in their children and education, the U.S. has made major cuts to Head Start, public education, children’s health care (CHIP), and human services. Imprisonment has replaced social policy. The U.S. has 25 percent of the world prisoners and only 5 percent of the world’s population.xviii The results of divesting in our youth are an increasing rate of poverty, a national deficit in the trillions, and a growing number of high-school drop-outs (the makings of a welfare state).
Having the most educated workforce in the world won’t change the fact that corporations can get comparable labor for a fraction of the cost overseas. Instead of businesses reforming education, how about the business community put forward a national plan to ensure future graduates quality jobs and fair wages. After all, our past commitment to people and “the land of opportunity” is what has made the United States a world leader!
Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Standardized testing benefits the four major testing publishers: McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson Assessments (formerly NCS), and Harcourt General. State-wide testing contracts allow for complete control over curriculum resources, teacher training, consultants and other assessment tools, creating a monopoly over the “public education marketplace.” Testing corporations are the drafters behind No Child Left Behind. This should be no surprise: McGraw Hill, publishers of CSAP, reported profit of $49 million in 1993 before high stakes testing; in 2004 with contracts in 26 states, profits exceeded $340 million.xix Standardized testing really isn’t about competition between students or nations it’s about financial gains and competition over economic targets. The question of who benefits from school competition and the high-stakes testing craze grows increasingly clearer.
Myth #7 “Standardized testing is the most efficient way to measure a child’s performance.”
“Efficiency” appears to be a key word in the debate over high stakes testing. Contracts vary from state to state and usually the costs claimed are only those for the development, publishing, and scoring of the test. School districts carry the most expensive burden of administering these lengthy exams. Hidden costs include teacher training, test-prep guides, time spent in class learning that particular test format, test-taking strategies, and proctoring the actual test. The estimated total costs for the Colorado State Assessment Program (CSAP) is 50 million dollars annually.xx Of course most districts use additional standardized tests such as ITBS, NAEP, PSAT, ACT, TERRA NOVA, MAP, COGAT, and so forth, exacting an outrageous amount of money for testing at taxpayer’s expense.
Many consider testing a waste of time and money considering that test scores tell us more about the measurement tool than the students being measured. According to the 2005 CSAP, 86 percent of fourth grade readers were considered proficient. Yet according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 28 percent of Colorado students scored high enough to be labeled as proficient.xxi The recent article, “State tests, NAEP often a mismatch” highlights major discrepancies in state and national tests.xxii Regardless of the scores or the discrepancies, the true qualities we value in our schools can never be reflected in a single number.
Test scores are not prescriptive and educators and parents are given only vague and generalized feedback. CSAP results are not provided until the following year when a child has advanced to the next grade and teacher. More than half, 66%, in a sample of 6,000 polled said NCLB requires too much testing. xxiii
Looking at the costs spent on standardized tests and the time invested preparing the test-takers, testing mandates are neither an “efficient” use of our dollars or our teachers. For the same amount of money spent on CSAP last year, Colorado could have gained 1,500 new teachers and time spent on preparation and testing could have been spent on learning – what a concept!
Myth #8“The public supports testing”
Seven years of grading schools based on students’ standardized tests and the results are clear: lower graduation rates, a wider achievement gap, shorter recesses, larger classes, fewer opportunities for children, and more red tape.xxiv
Anthony Ralston writes, “When the central aim of educational change is just to improve test scores, improved education is seldom the result.”xxv The first nationwide appraisal of No Child Left Behind showed “the rate of improvement was faster before the law.”xxvi
A recent poll by Give Kids Good Schools.org found that 31% do not support NCLB at all.xxvii In The 2006 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll found that the more people knew about NCLB, the less they supported it.xxviii
More than 3,000 Colorado families said “No” to CSAP in 2005. The Colorado Department of Education, in an attempt to mask these numbers, now counts CSAP parent refusals as “participating.” The Colorado Legislature assigns the value of -.05 (unsatisfactory) to non-test takers artificially deflating school test scores and contaminating all CSAP data.
America’s children will soon be facing challenges with the environment, economy, global work force, national and international security, an aging population, limited resources and so forth. Successfully addressing 21st Century obstacles will require leadership, imagination, resourcefulness, adaptability, imagination, cooperation, creativity, and courage. Even if we were to meet the goals of NCLB and graduate a generation proficient on test scores, what would that get them? What we cultivate in our classrooms and in our children is equally as important as what we fail to cultivate.
It is not just standardized tests and the CSAP that is at issue here; standardization, and the practice of evaluating schools based entirely on test scores undermines the pursuit of quality education. The problem lies in the fact that we have transferred the crucial responsibility of informing, guiding, and monitoring the educational system to test publishers who have no accountability. Business leaders and policy makers, distantly removed from the students, have superseded the role of the professional educators in making vital school and classroom decisions that impact our children. Parents are evaluating the quality of schools on “data points” instead of doing the necessary work of observing, asking questions, and participating in the efforts of our schools to instill wisdom, imagination, integrity, and courage in our growing future. Teachers and administrators have too willingly signed away both their rights and responsibilities in promoting learning that is individualized, challenging, and meaningful and now have all of the liability and none of the authority. Instead of educational improvement today’s current reform system has reduced opportunities for disadvantaged children, demoralized our schools, narrowed the range of thought, paralyzed the imagination of a generation, and impeded our children’s intrinsic motivation and the natural will to learn. Our educational institutions are the best hope for our future; if we do not rise upon behalf of children, our nation will continue even further in a perilous direction; diminishing our capacity for greatness and limiting our potential for the extraordinary.
Copyright ©Angela Engel, June 2007
i CTB/ McGraw-Hill, “Guide to Test Interpretation,” 2003.
iiGreg Winter, “More Schools Rely on Tests, but Study Raises Doubts” The New York Times, December 28, 2002.
iii Colorado Department of Education, CSAP Summary Data 1997-2006, http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeassess/documents/csap/csap_summary.html.
iv Lisa Piscopo, Doctoral thesis: Explaining Variability in the CSAP Scores: A Geographic Perspective, University of Denver 2005.
v DU’s Graduate School of Social Work and College of Education commissioned sociologist David Rusk to study the CSAP issue. Rusk found a high correlation between a school’s socioeconomic profile and its students’ CSAP scores. He also found that on average, Denver’s neighborhoods and schools are more racially and economically segregated than many comparable American Metropolitan areas. University of Denver 2003
vi David Berliner & Bruce Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis, (Addison Wesley 1995).
vii George Hillocks Jr., The Testing Trap, (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).
viii Colorado Department of Education, CSAP Essentials webpage, “CSAP Interpretation Resources: Step-by-step process for understanding the CSAP,” 2003; Verified by McGraw-Hill
ix Henriques, Steinberg, “Right Answer, Wrong Score: Test Flaws Take Toll.” New York Times, 20, May 2001.
x Gerald Bracey, “The Condition of Public Education.” Phi Delta Kappan, October, 2003.
xi Henriques, Steinberg 2001.
xii Associated Press, “4,000 SAT-takers got wrong scores” March 7, 2006
xiii Henriques, Steinberg 2001.
xivEve Baker, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student testing at U.C.L.A., The New York Times.
xv Marie Wirsing, “PS #1 Charter and the Question of Resisting High-stakes Testing.” Panel presentation, 24, October, 2001.
xvi Economic Policy Institute, Economic Snapshot, “Social expenditures and child poverty—the U.S. is a noticeable outlier” June 23,2004 http://www.epinet.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_snapshots_06232004.
xviii Michael R. Petit, Homeland Insecurity American Children At Risk, (Every Child Matters, 2006).
xix2005 Investor Fact book, Mc Graw-Hill. http://investor.mcgraw-hill.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=96562&p=irol-investorfactbook. To download the report click on McGraw-Hill Education, p22-36.
xx Teachers’ salary spent on CSAP alone:
(# days on CSAP / days per year) * (Teacher salary) * [# teachers doing CSAP] =
[(5 days / 200 days) * ($43,319)] * [44,975*(8/13)] = $30 million
Fixed costs of CSAP = $15 million
Annual cost = $45 million
(# of student days, avg. teacher salary, #of CO teachers, provided by the Colorado Dept of Education)
xxi“A Decade of Standards-Based Education” State Achievement Report Card, Quality Counts 2006 http://www.edweek.org/media/ew/qc/2006/17shr.co.h25.pdf
xxii “State tests, NAEP often a mismatch.” Education Week, June 13, 2007.
xxiii Give Kids Good Schools.org polled 6,245 nationwide in December of 2005.
xxiv Children’s Action Agenda, Solutions in Education, (Every Child Matters, 2007).
xxvAnthony Ralston, “Next Disaster in American Education: Rising Test Scores.” Phi Delta Kappan, October 2003.
xxvi Jack Jennings, President of the Center on Education Policy, New York Times, “Bush Education Law Shows Mixed Results in First Test” by Sam Dillon, October 20, 2005.
xxvii Give Kids Good Schools.
xxviii Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup, The 38th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, September 2006.