From New York to Florida and East Coast to West,
the Winds of Changing Politics Stir Varying Approaches to Testing and Varying Results
More than in most countries, American K-12 students in public schools have been frequently tested, and those tests have always produced a certain amount of anxiety for students, parents and educators. If you add politics to the mix, the anxiety level can only increase. It has increased.
There are those who prefer a single set of tests administered nationwide. There are those who want tests crafted and administered at the state level, and there are those who are “opting out” of all student testing as it is currently constructed.
The government urge to test students has been closely tied to funding and a real determination to measure school performance, including the performance of students, teachers and whole school districts. In many cases, test results have brought a lot less carrot and a lot more stick to schools seen as underperforming.
In districts around the state of New York, the number of parents opting out ranges from significant to overwhelming. In some districts, the parents have been joined by superintendents.
Michael Hynes is superintendent of the Patchogue-Medford School District in New York. He has called the New York testing requirements “criminal” and “abusive.” In his district, 70 percent of families are opting out of student testing. His district is diverse racially and economically, so the biased opinion of opt-out parents isn’t easy to apply.
It is also true that he is against all student or district assessments. “First of all, students need to be assessed, so I think anyone who is in education would totally agree with that premise,” Hynes said, adding that New York education administrators have admitted that their current assessments of third through eighth grade students are not reliable or insightful.
“With that pronouncement, there is no purpose to having our students sit down for three days for multiple hours on end for a test that means little to nothing,” Hynes said.
He would prefer performance-based assessments typified by consortium schools in New York City. He said, “Why do we have to rely on paper and pencil tests where kids are scoring bubbles? That (performance-based assessment) is a true measure of what a student can do?”
Even in states where there are educators proud of their accountability programs, there remains much to be done.
Barbara Jenkins is superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida. She credits Florida governor Jeb Bush for a “pioneering” state accountability system.
“It was beyond what most states had put in place and, I thought, brought particular attention to individual students and school level accomplishment,” Jenkins said. “I think, if you look at the statistics, it helped catapult Florida more toward the front of the class or near the front of the class when it comes to accountability systems.”
Jenkins believes that such historical progress should be matched as the state prepares to comply with new ESSA standards.
“It’s a wonderful prime opportunity to have a comprehensive overhaul or a new look at what we should be doing in an accountability system, as opposed to just trying to make slight adjustments to match compliance with certain rules,” Jenkins said.
She also believes in testing as a measure of school performance, with some reservations. She said, “The punitive nature of what has become part of our accountability systems needs a new look because in the end, I think, the question must be asked: if you punish teachers and principals and put a label on the schools like a scarlet letter, does it in the end really produce a result of increased student achievement that is sustainable?”
In particular, Jenkins prefers growth models that measure school and student progress in a more positive way and less reliance on “A” to “F” grading.
“An A through F grading system is certainly not required and it served its purpose, but it needs a sort of refresh,” said Jenkins. She worries that the stigma attached to schools with failing grades encourages students and teachers to move on, rather than improve schools.
“What you do when you put that label on them is drive what academic talent there is away, because in Florida there’s a provision that you can transfer out of the system and be transported to another school because you want out of an ‘F’ school. The teacher in that school is also going to be impacted because teachers – for their own personal reputation – will be more tempted to leave that school because of the stigma behind that ‘F’ grade,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins prefers a system of levels that more adequately reward improvement. She also favors new testing methods that make teaching to the test less prevalent.
“The way our testing has transformed, you’re not just going to memorize some things or spill and drill to increase your performance. As we delve more into critical thinking, synthesizing and supporting an argument with evidence, those types of things, there’s not a lot you can do to teach to the test,” Jenkins said.
Unlike districts in New York, Jenkins said the opt-out population in her district is very small and that Florida educators are making concerted efforts to make both parents and legislators aware of all the pertinent issues around accountability.
“Whether or not there are legislative changes made that will really impact the future of our accountability system remains to be seen, but I will tell you we are certainly putting forth our best efforts,” she said.
Even the most cursory examination of student testing and its relationship to educational standards would suggest that progress has been, at best, uneven.