The Blog

The Fallacy Behind High-Stakes Testing

Whether you call it Valued-Added (VAM), Accountability, or Assessment, testing is not about learning. It is about sorting kids out, punishing teachers, schools, and communities, and denying deeper social inequality and injustice.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

In earlier posts I highlighted John Oliver's brilliant HBO broadcast poking holes in arguments for high-stakes standardized testing and focused on twisted efforts my the New York State Board of Regents and Governor Andrew Cuomo to justify high-stakes standardized tests that appear to have little or no educational legitimacy.

The coalition that opposes high-stakes standardized testing is very broad and has drawn in individuals and groups with very different agendas. Right-wing Republicans attack Common Core as federal overreach. Bobby Jindal, Republican Governor of Louisiana, who at one time actually supported Common Core, filed a suit against the State of Louisiana and the United States Department of Education to block the implementation of the standards. Tea Party Congressional Representative Michelle Bachmann declared she wanted to repeal the Race to the Top program because it foisted common core state standards onto cash strapped states.

Teacher unions tend to support a more standardized curriculum like Common Core, but oppose mandated high-stakes tests, especially when they are used to evaluate teachers. Parent groups protest that the high-stakes Common Core aligned tests put unnecessary stress on children and transform classrooms from learning environments into test prep academies. The parent rebellion against testing has built to a crescendo and this year, according to a New York Times survey, at least 165,000 students or over 15% of students scheduled to take Common Core aligned assessments, opted-out of taking the exams.

Personally I do not have a problem with "federal overreach." I would like to see Republican governors and legislatures forced to provide adequate educational funds and programs for minority students in their states. I would also like to drive Pearson and the other testing companies out of the education business, but that is not a good enough reason to end the high-stakes testing regime. However, educators know there are at least three valid educational reasons to stop the high-stakes testing regime that drives American mis-education.

1. We know that high-stakes testing transforms curriculum into test prep that undermines any test validity.
2. We are witnessing how high-stakes testing and the penalties for poor performance create a nation of cheaters not learners or producers.
3. We know that high-stakes testing actually generates anxiety that undermines student performance and learning.

Allison White, co-founder of Port Washington Advocates for Public Education, is part of the parent uprising against high-stakes testing on Long island, New York. According to White, "They're not teaching kids. It's not just the time for the testing. It's weeks and months they spend prepping for the tests. I don't see any educational purpose for the individual kid." White said. "If these tests are so important and the only way to measure whatever people pushing them claim they measure," White wants to know "why don't we require them in private schools?" She accuses the federal government of using the promise of federal dollars to "bribe states to adopt the Common Core." White is also critical of the testing companies, especially Pearson. "Essentially, they're a monopoly. They make the tests, the test prep materials, the remedial materials you need if you fail the test. If more kids fail the test, you can convince the school to buy more remedial materials."

Charlotte Danielson, a noted academic and author who is a strong supporter of Common Core, was one of the early educators to express concern about the validity of the high-stakes testing regime. According to Danielson, "I'm concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I've seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I'm not sure that I would pass it--and I've got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we'll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing. That's what I mean by train wreck." That was in March 2013, two years before the opt-out movement really took off.

According to Common Core claims that it is based on the idea that "students should be able to think critically rather than just memorize material for tests. But according to a report on Business Insider, "Common Core and the tests tied to those standards might prevent students from achieving that goal. Those rigorous tests could discourage teachers from being creative and force them to teach to the test" because teachers are being evaluated based on mandated improvement in student test scores, what is also known as a Value-Added Model. The report quotes Michael Benezra, a legislative director for the Massachusetts Senate, who told Business Insider "The reliance on testing pigeonholes the teachers to teach only to the test . . . "I think it's kind of counterintuitive to students getting the big picture because they're required to test so much. In order to perform well on the test, you have to memorize things. ... You can say we're trying to get them to think more critically and read closely ... but at the end, the students take a test, they don't write a long essay where they're forced to think deeply about the issue."

Whether you call it Valued-Added (VAM), Accountability, or Assessment, testing is not about learning. It is about sorting kids out, punishing teachers, schools, and communities, and denying deeper social inequality and injustice.

Even people and groups generally supportive of Common Core are questioning the validity of the high-stakes testing, especially its use to evaluate teacher performance. The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the National Academy of Education released a report co-written by prominent educational researchers including former Obama educational advisor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University.

According to the report's executive summary, a Value-Added Model "assumes that student learning is measured well by a given test, is influenced by the teacher alone, and is independent of other aspects of the classroom context. Because these assumptions are problematic, researchers have documented problems with value-added models as measures of teachers' effectiveness." But the report concludes that Value-Added Models for measuring Teacher Effectiveness using student performance on high-stakes standardized assessments are "highly unstable, teacher evaluations "are significantly affected by differences in the students who are assigned to them, Value-Added ratings based on student performance on high-stakes standardized tests "cannot disentangle the many influences on student progress."

Translating from education jargon into plain English, this means their research findings show that high-stakes standardized tests are not valid for evaluating teachers or students.

The pretense that we can measure everything using sophisticate algorithms that no one can explain, that the profit motive or punishment are the only or best way to motivate human behavior, or that when people fail or are left behind it is because of their own weaknesses, are perverting American culture and transforming this country into a nation of high-anxiety cheaters always searching for an edge.

It is easy to put the blame for cheating on teachers and administrators, as they did in Atlanta. But cheating on high-stakes tests in the United States is endemic and systemic. The school reform "Texas Miracle" that helped propel George Bush to the presidency was based on falsified data. According to a Government Accountability Office report evidence of organized institutional cheating was confirmed for at least one standardized test in 33 states in the school years 2010-11 and 2011-2012 alone. Thirty-two of the states decided to cancel, invalidate, or nullify test scores because of the suspected cheating. It is as if the tests are designed to turn us all into cheats.

The Fiscal Times claims "corruption is as American as apple pie." I agree, but add when money is on the line - a good reason to oppose the out-sourcing of education to private for-profit companies. Tom "The Deflator" Brady, Lance Armstrong, Alex "A-Roid" Rodriguez, Marion Jones, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds, Brian Williams, Wall Street hedge fund managers, Bernie Madoff, and Bill Clinton - cheaters all. American society likes to dismiss individuals as cheaters but ignore the incentives created by a highly competitive society where the rewards for crossing the line without getting caught are astronomical and after all, everybody cheats. Just last week, four of the world's largest and most powerful banks, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, and Royal Bank of Scotland pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate the value of world currencies.

United States Secretary of Mis-Education Arne Duncan derisively dismissed parental protests against the high-stakes testing regime labeling opponents as "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were." Despite what Duncan says there are many scientific studies that have documented "performance anxiety," the impact of stress on performance. The nervousness students feel before a test can be so intense that it interferes with concentration and performance. Persistent fear and anxiety can also affect a young child's learning and development.

Studies by Professor Claude Steele at the University of Michigan and Stanford found that standardized tests do not accurately measure intellectual merit because racial and gender stereotypes contribute to "stereotype vulnerability" that interferes with the intellectual functioning of female and minority test takers. Steele concluded that "societal stereotypes can systematically depress the test performance of some groups more than others, even when those groups enter the test situation with equal knowledge."

Performance anxiety affects adults as well as children. Many studies focus on world-class athletes. A number of elite athletes have wilted under the pressure of competition including Greg Norman in golf, Jana Novotná in tennis, and champion boxer Roberto Duran. Pete Rose, the lifetime major league hits leader batted only .214 in the 1972 World Series, one reason the Reds lost to the Athletics, and .188 in 1976. His lifetime batting average was .303 but he hit only .269 in six World Series appearances.

The Onion, a satirical newspaper, recently took their shot at high-stakes standardized testing in an article listing what the editors saw as testing's "pros and cons." Their number one "pro" testing argument is that "Every student" is "measured against same narrow, irrelevant set of standards." Other "pro testing arguments" were that the high-stakes tests hold "teachers personally accountable for success of large, monolithic testing organizations;" "Western tradition of critical thinking" is "best embodied in bubble-sheet format"; and "Repeated testing carefully develops teachers' cheating skills." There major "con" argument is that "There are easier ways to measure parents' income." They probably should have added that other forms of "cruel and unusual punishment" are outlawed by the United States Constitution.