VIEWPOINT: Question the tests

by Pamela Casey Nagler

School’s out, and that means our schools have completed yet another year of standardized testing.

What this should mean, in an education town like Claremont, is that we will be evaluating these tests before we start gearing up for the next round. However, I’m not sure that this will happen.

In the past, Claremont has not been very critical of these tests. Like our fictional counterparts in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, our children tend to be “above average” and many of us have looked at the tests as an opportunity for our children to score high. It’s all been an academic “smackdown” where we get to show the stuff we’re made of. That said, there are plenty of good reasons for us to question the tests and to weigh the expenses against the benefits.

It’s not news that our California schools are cash-strapped. Here in Claremont, we run school fundraising campaigns, but even an affluent community like Claremont can’t raise enough money to fill the gaps.

If California were considered a country, we’d be one of the top 10 economies in the world and, yet, California public schools finish dead last in the country in our student-to-teacher, student-to-counselor, student-to-librarian ratios. During the Great Recession of 2008-09, California cut 10 percent of its public education labor force—30,000 from a previous 300,000—and though there are promises of an influx of new funds, I have not heard of plans to maneuver California out of our last-place finish in our student-to-educator ratios.

Therefore, it’s imperative that we receive optimum educational value for every dollar we spend. So how is it that we can continue to find money for tests, computers for testing, test prep materials and seminars that serve our testing culture when our classrooms continue to be underserved?

The new version of the tests is more expensive than ever. We’ve replaced the pencil and paper tests with computerized ones. The government mandate to provide computers to all our students has proved and will prove to be enormously expensive.

There are certainly sound educational reasons for installing technology in our schools, but it would seem that the best way to meet our schools’ technological needs would be by using a measured instructional perspective rather than a testing-giving one. We’re letting the tail wag the dog on this one.

This mad dash to install technology in our schools has created a windfall for our country’s ed-tech corporations, raising legitimate concerns that our public schools have succumbed to pressure from private companies with a profit incentive. Los Angeles USD’s recent iPad scandal provides a cautionary tale of money squandered on technology at the expense of other valuable programs.

It’s not enough to frame the debate about these tests on the single issue of expense; the bigger issue is whether the tests have educational value.

It’s difficult to debate test content because few of us know what’s on these tests. The private companies that own the tests have been allowed to operate in secrecy. Teachers who administer the tests are required to sign confidentiality agreements that they will not read them. Students who take the tests are told not to discuss the questions. With taxpayer dollars, testing corporations hire corporations to monitor children on social media to ensure that they are not discussing test questions.

There are few systems in place to determine that the tests adhere to CA ED Codes that assure “validity, reliability and non-bias,” and it is precisely this atmosphere of powerful, enforced silence that prevents the tests from having educative value.

Commonly, when classroom teachers administer a test, they hand back the graded tests and allow students to debate the questions. However, the standardized tests have not set up any platforms for such debates. Testing corporations could publish their tests after they’ve been administered, but they have never done so. Chasing profits, the companies keep the questions secret, and taxpayers have not demanded public scrutiny. It is ironic that the tests we use to determine school accountability have not, themselves, been held accountable. This lack of transparency continues to be the single most perplexing aspect of these tests.

We’ve been testing for over a decade now and the longitudinal studies are complete. Test scores correlate with students’ zip codes, parent incomes and parent education levels. The tests were sold to us as a tool to promote equity. However, the tests have done little to level the playing field in our poorer schools in our segregated California neighborhoods. While the schools in wealthier neighborhoods have had the luxury of continuing to offer a diverse curriculum, our poorer schools have been reduced to “teaching to the test.”

Pamela Casey Nagler teaches at Montclair High School.


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