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High Stakes are for Tomatoes

Written by Dennison Joyce on 10-28-2003

"No single test score can be considered a definitive measure of a student's knowledge." (National Research Council Report, High StakesTesting, 1999).

As presented before a State Assembly Hearing October 15th:

The so called �standard�s movement� is really a cult, a cult of measurement. The measurement that is, of absurdly disconnected and uninspired pedagogy. High stakes standardized tests and test scores undermine high-quality education, genuine student/teacher motivation, and the benefits of diversity and inclusion.

Standardized tests scores are actually a far better measurement of household income and of how many parents live in the household than of real authentic learning.(Glen Robinson and David P. Brandon, NAEP TestScores.)

For example, SAT scores for college-bound seniors increase consistently with family income, an average of 29 points for each $10,000. Those with family income under $10,000 a year average 871; those with incomes over $100,000 average 1130. The ACT, another college entrance test, shows the same trend. The U.S. Department of Education looked at the backgrounds of students who made at least 1,100 (out of 1,600) on the SAT, which tends to be the cut-off for highly selective colleges such as those in the Ivy League. One-third came from the upper-income brackets and less than a tenth from low-income families. (J.Slaughter, High Stakes Injustice)

If the state education board is concerned with family income, may I suggest going to the Census Bureau as a more direct means than national testing. So why do we believe that these test scores are indicative of classroom practice? Is it ignorance or something worse?

When students are judged based on multiple choice test scores teachers are forced to implement more multiple choice test exercises and to take practice tests in class. Teachers have to spend time going over test taking skills, and so real diverse learning gets replaced with repetitive study of even the very instrument that is purported to measure the fruits of rigorous study.

On this conveyer belt of fact collection and recall, knowledge becomes alienated and disconnected from the learner. Teachers get caught up in the game of getting their students to pass. This is the process of dumbing down, or the curricular race to the bottom. High scores don�t matter in High Stakes testing, only the lower range scores (55 or 65).

Hence, all focus narrows, and narrows, real learning is corrupted so that a single measurement can be accrued. But what it seems we are truly measuring is our own lack of enlightenment. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, �What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge and not knowledge in pursuit of the child."

No wonder a number of studies written from a range of perspectives have claimed that high school students find history to be one of the most boring and irrelevant subjects in their lives (Loewen, 1995; Green, 1993; Schug, Todd and Beers, 1984; Cuban, 1993).

Of course, there is no uniform agreement as to why this is the case. Some researchers point to bland, overstuffed history textbooks as the source of student apathy and dissatisfaction, textbooks that are the foundation of the high stakes tests (Loewen, 1995; FitzGerald, 1979; Apple, 1998).

In such a classroom teachers are forced into convergent thinking methods, the narrowing of real thought and ideas into a collection of bite sized facts. This �Fact-O-Rama� style teaching is promoted by such exams. We are now not training students to be critical thinkers and intellectual citizens, but rather to be successful at shows like �Who Wants to be a Millionaire�? Schooling minds is far more important than just schooling memories. The difference between real learning and simple training is at the heart of this question.

Educational practices such as problem based learning, collaborative learning, issues around multiple intelligences, multicultural curricular, integrating writing and art into the curriculum, building individual moral and social character, to name a few, are all methods and elements of learning sacrificed by these high stake tests.

A High test score may be a very bad thing, since it is often accompanied by the terrifying decline in these alternative, more creative and far more comprehensive modes of learning.

Instead of collecting a host of isolated facts our students could be engaged in open ended understanding, divergent (higher level) thinking that broadens, heightens and enlightens the mind. Coverage goals are so ingrained in standardized test prep that teaching becomes sterile. And so young minds are bored, not by history, (for how could they be?) but rather by the way it is taught. Bored minds are wasteful, and increase negative behavior in the classroom and the number of �drop outs� in society.

I believe that high stake testing is a cover for not dealing with the real problems of public education. It makes the kids and the teachers a scapegoat. All the evidence shows that reliance on standardized testing does not improve learning. In the name of "raising standards" and "accountability," I fear that we're crushing the intellectual life out of classrooms and turning schools into giant test-prep centers

We are at a crossroad between tragedy and promise.

Let us not simply impart isolated facts but rather train our students to gather evidence, evaluate data, apply lessons of the past, judge character and lucidly state conclusions.

The stakes are indeed high in this matter, problems certainly abound in measuring learning, it can be messy and time consuming. However, lets not fool ourselves for a second, real solutions here have nothing to do with High Stakes tests.

In the words of Albert Einstein, "Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts."

Dennison Joyce

Landmark HS

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