What a mess.
Indiana’s elementary and middle school testing program, ISTEP, is at the center of a chaotic mess and no one seems to be looking at the real problem…
The tests this year average more than 19 hours for grades 3 through 8…Does it make sense for kids ages 8 through 14 to take exams taking longer than the SAT and ACT put together, and longer than the Indiana Bar Exam? No, not at all, but that’s where we’ve come in our national testing insanity.
This year’s ISTEP debacle can be explained simply…
Indiana and Governor Pence jumped on the Common Core Standards bandwagon (along with most other states), but when a backlash arose against inappropriate standards among educators, and federal intervention among conservatives, the state reversed directions. Here, then, is a quick summary of how we got to where we are today…
- Indiana backed out of the Common Core Standards.
- The US Education Department insisted that Indiana still needed “college and career ready standards and a test to measure them.”
- Indiana rushed to create standards (instead of returning to the pre-CCSS standards which were among the best in the nation) and an assessment program to test them.
- The State Board of Education refused to run a pilot of the test in the Fall.
- McGraw Hill said that the state needed pilot questions for the test to be valid.
- The pilot questions, instead of being given in the Fall have been added to the Spring test.
- Result: hours and hours of testing for Indiana’s public school children.
The big problem, however, is one which hardly anyone is talking about.
Yes, the test is too long…yes, the basis for the problem stems from a combination of things, most important being the CCSS, Federal Requirements, and conflict in Indiana between Republicans and the lone elected Democrat. But the most important part of this problem which is being almost universally ignored is this…
Testing in Indiana and the US is out of control.
As Linda Darling-Hammond said in an interview for Rise Above the Mark,
The problem we have with testing in this country today is that…we’re using the wrong kinds of tests, and…we’re using the tests in the wrong kinds of ways.
Achievement tests ought to be used to measure that which they were designed to measure — the achievement of students.
We’re misusing tests by using them to rank schools, evaluate educators, and make high stakes decisions for students.
Using achievement tests to rank schools helps schools in wealthy areas and harms schools in high poverty areas. It doesn’t improve instruction…and only leads to inappropriate state intervention. Indiana’s A-F school grading system is unnecessarily complicated and measures neighborhood income rather than the instructional success of a school. See here and here.
Even Superintendent Ritz fell into the trap of calling low graded schools “low-acheiving.” No public schools are “low achieving.” Rather, there are schools with many low achieving students and they need more resources, more support, and yes, better teachers, which brings us to…
Using achievement tests to evaluate teachers is unreliable and invalid. Doctors don’t give blood tests to determine if a bone is broken. We don’t use teaspoons to measure temperature. Achievement tests are developed to measure student achievement and good testing practice means that we don’t use them for anything else — like evaluating teachers. See here and here.
Using achievement tests to make high stakes decisions for students is also inappropriate. FairTest makes the case against using tests for graduation, grade promotion, or any other high stakes purpose. See The Case Against High Stakes Testing.
Misusing standardized tests does not improve student achievement.
We give too many tests in the US. We don’t have to test every student every year. Most high achieving nations in the world use standardized testing sparingly if at all. Our use borders on the Obsessive-Compulsive and it’s based on the fact that Americans believe that our schools are failing and that there is an epidemic of bad teachers — two beliefs which are incorrect.
We spend about $1.7 billion a year on state testing in the US, which is actually a fairly small percentage of the nation’s education spending. However, that $1.7 billion does not include
- the cost of time spent at the state and local level to manage test distribution, organization, sorting, packaging, and shipping.
- the cost of time spent in classrooms preparing and taking tests
- the cost of other assessments given to students either by states or local school systems
- the loss of instructional time
- the cost in emotional stress on students pressured by 1) inappropriate high stakes assessments, 2) less instructional time, and 3) less time for childhood
- the cost in emotional stress on school staff pressured by 1) inappropriate high stakes assessments affecting their job security, and 2) lack of time to do the tasks they were hired to do
The overuse, misuse, and obsession with testing in the US has misdirected our attention from the single greatest problem affecting public education today: Child poverty.
The US has the highest child poverty among the “wealthy” nations of the world. Poverty, not “low achieving schools,” or “bad teachers,” is the most important factor in low student achievement. See here and here.
We could raise our national achievement level — and secure our nation’s future in the process — if we could find a way to counter the effects on poverty among our children. Politicians and policy makers don’t know how to do this…so they redirect our attention to a result of poverty — low school achievement — rather than admitting that they don’t know what to do.
BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA
While the politicians fight over a long decided election…and blame each other for the mess surrounding the state’s standardized testing program…and jockey for positions of power by legislating new rules…
Indiana’s public school teachers and students are waiting to be bludgeoned once again by an inappropriate, unreliable, and invalid measuring stick.
If Indiana needs a standardized test at all, we should use one which will
- reflect what students learn
- cost less in money and time
- provide information that teachers can use rather than information with which to label winners and losers
- have no impact on school funding
- not be the basis for high stakes decisions for students or teachers
Indiana should use tests in a way which helps us see how we’re doing. We should focus on what we can do to become better at educating our youth.
In short, we don’t need to change the length of the ISTEP tests. We need to change them into something we can use for the benefit of students, or cancel them, forever.
The narrow pursuit of test results has sidelined education issues of enduring importance such as poverty, equity in school funding, school segregation, health and physical education, science, the arts, access to early childhood education, class size, and curriculum development. We have witnessed the erosion of teachers’ professional autonomy, a narrowing of curriculum, and classrooms saturated with “test score-raising” instructional practices that betray our understandings of child development and our commitment to educating for artistry and critical thinking. And so now we are faced with “a crisis of pedagogy”–teaching in a system that no longer resembles the democratic ideals or tolerates the critical thinking and critical decision-making that we hope to impart on the students we teach.