A Month of Opting Out of Standardized Tests: Week 1

I get a lot of questions about education from friends, family, friends of family, family of friends and random people on the interwebs.  One of the most difficult questions I get is "Why did you choose to opt your kids out of standardized tests?".  This question isn't difficult because I don't know the answer.  It's difficult because they are looking for the short version of a very complex decision.  Last year I wrote about our decision to opt out of the state test in Arkansas.  This year is a bit different.  Partly because our reasons have evolved and partly because standardized testing will take an entire MONTH in 2015.  So I decided that I would tackle one reason per day during the month-long testing window of March 9 - April 10.  Including spring break, that's 20 school days of testing.  I'll post each reason separately and use this post as the master list.  So here you have it, the Endacott Family Top 20 Reasons we are opting out of PARCC in 2015:

Reason 1:  We trust teachers

Standardized tests have become the most important measure of educational quality in recent years.  As some of my later posts will explain, this is ridiculous.  You might have heard of Value Added Measurement (VAM), which is how test scores are used to determine teacher quality.  VAM requires a complicated statistical model that can be horribly erroneous when calculated by those without the right expertise.  Not only is VAM ripe for error, but the American Statistical Association has highlighted research that shows teachers account for only 1 percent-14 percent of the variance in student test scores. Very recent research has also demonstrated that there is no association between VAM test score data and other composite measures of effective teaching.  In other words, VAM is a problematic way to measure teacher quality that is also inconsistent with what we already know about good teaching.  Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa survey on public education, 72 percent of Americans have trust and confidence in their kids' teachers.  You can count us among their numbers.  Nobody knows what our children are capable of more than the teachers that see them every day.  Fifty-eight percent of Americans also oppose the use of standardized tests to evaluate teachers.  We are definitely among them as well, and as long as test scores are being used in this fashion, I hope they join us in opting out.

Reason 2: False Premises

If you listen to politicians and pundits (bad idea) then you'd think that poor standardized test scores are a danger to our national security and that boosting test scores can be the cure for everything from pervasive poverty to sustainable economic growth.  You'll even hear claims that closing the achievement gap will add trillions of dollars to our GDP.  While the U.S. census has shown that each additional year of schooling will lead to greater overall career earnings, there is no evidence that higher test scores will have that same relationship.  Economists make predictions with lots of assumptions, but there is one serious flaw to the argument that higher test scores equal greater economic success.

That flaw is that test scores are a symptom of poverty and economic success, not a cause.  There is a clear and undeniable link between socioeconomic status and test scores, but it is socioeconomic status that affects test scores, not the other way around.  Simply put, raising test scores will not reduce poverty -- reducing poverty will raise test scores.  We opt our children out of the test because we refuse to help perpetuate the shortsighted focus on symptoms rather than causes.

If you want to know more about the problems that poverty causes that test scores won't fix, we recommend this book.

Reason 3:  Narrowing Curriculum

There can be no question that the curriculum in our public schools has narrowed considerably since NCLB in the early 2000s.  Subjects such as social studies, the arts, even science were relegated to secondhand status in order to focus on standardized tests.  Now we have the Common Core State Standards for English / Language Arts and Math along with a new set of tests (PARCC and Smarter Balance).

The introduction of CCSS has further kicked the "other" subjects in school to the curb because the stakes for PARCC and Smarter Balance are higher than ever.  In reaction, schools made the rational decision to allocate resources, time and attention to preparing for the test.  By placing 100 percent of our attention on student "achievement" on these two tests, we have essentially told our students that nothing else matters.  And our students are listening.

Reason 4: Harming Children

Over the past few years schools have made great sacrifices in order to raise standardized test scores.  Examples include doing away with nap time in kindergarten, giving students less recess and physical education, cutting school nurses, firing school librarians, and discontinuing musical programs.

These sacrifices are being made despite the enormous body of research that says they benefit children. Five year olds need nap time.  Sick kids need medical attention.  All kids need physical activity.  Libraries without librarians are just big rooms full of books, and in some schools they are even getting rid of the books.   Then we have examples of how testing is used as a form of public humiliation in the form of data walls.

This is just a sampling of how we hurt our children by devoting our time, resources, and attention to testing instead of their well-being.  The worst part is that our neediest students are the children that need these things the most, yet they are the first ones to lose them as underfunded schools cut and test, cut and test.  At least there's a significant body of research showing that testing benefits children far more than the things we are sacrificing for higher scores... Oh wait, no there isn't.

Reason 5: Ridiculous Preparation

The preparation for all standardized testing is a little ridiculous when you think about it.  Where else in life does your ability to perform well on a test make a difference?  Sure there are qualifying exams for many professions, but once in a profession, one's ability to perform well on a test really doesn't mean squat.  Yet we've placed great emphasis on this ability in schools.

Preparation for the new PARCC test is a special kind of ridiculous.  We don't have a great deal of data on the preparation so far (though we will be collecting this soon), but many teachers have sent us anectdotal examples of how test preparation has taken wasting time to a whole new level.  One teacher recently sent me this message:

"I have spent two weeks preparing kids for this test - practice tests, analyzing questions, breaking down the question asked, how to not lose points, etc. I feel like a hack, this is not what I got into education for."

Plus, the PARCC is based on the computer, which means that schools
have supplemented these many hours of traditional test preparation with many additional hours of literally just showing students how to navigate the test online.  As if that wasn't enough wasted instructional time, concerns about bandwidth issues have led schools to using students as "bandwidth testers", pulling them out of classes in order to put them online at the same time just to see if the network will crash.  One teacher told me that it "took three hours just to take one practice test because  students were kicked offline, videos wouldn't play, and the network would time out."  It would be easy to blame the schools for these decisions, but do they really have a choice?  Everything depends on this.

Remember when test preparation involved somebody winking and saying, "when in doubt, just choose "C" for the answer"?  Those were the days.

For next Friday: Week 2 - or you can see daily updates on our blog EduSanity.com