Testing Madness: Charlotte Today, Your Schools Tomorrow

By Pamela Grundy

This spring, Charlotte, North Carolina, saw an explosion of standardized testing.

In March, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) rolled out 52 new standardized tests for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. Our Broad Foundation trained superintendent proudly proclaims that we will soon lead the nation in testing, with standardized tests for every student in every subject. In addition to the mandated state tests in reading, math and science, CMS students will take tests in art, P.E, dance, band, orchestra, student government, and every other class the system offers.

Even if you don’t live anywhere near Charlotte, you need to pay close attention. Our schools today may be your schools tomorrow.

Our testing explosion is the logical result of a current educational fad: the idea that the best way to improve education is to measure teachers’ “effectiveness” by their students’ performance on standardized tests. And this unproven fad may soon become the law of the land.

Experiments with test-based pay-for-performance schemes around the country have produced a plethora of evidence that judging teachers by test scores is not only highly unreliable, it does nothing to improve student achievement (for a summary of this research, see the PAA document “Tying Teacher Salaries to Test Scores Doesn’t Work”).

But despite this evidence, judging teachers by student performance was an integral part of the Race to the Top regulations. Both teacher and principal effectiveness, those regulations noted, should be “evaluated, in significant part, by student growth.” This “growth,” the regulations continued, “should be measured by assessments that “are rigorous and comparable across classrooms.”

How might a district seek to measure “student growth” by “rigorous” and “comparable” assessments?

Can anyone say standardized tests?

The regulations state that teachers should be evaluated by “multiple measures.” But if “student growth” is a required part of every teacher’s evaluation, it doesn’t matter whether the test score portion of the evaluation is 10 percent or 90 percent or anything in between. If every teacher has to have a growth number, every child in every grade will have to take multiple standardized tests.

Here in Charlotte, the situation has been made worse by our superintendent’s decision to pursue another popular fad: using test-based “value-added” scores as part of a pay-for-performance scheme. Teacher pay would be determined, at least in part, by how one teacher’s value-added score lines up against another’s. This isn’t just an expansion of standardized testing, it’s an expansion of high-stakes standardized testing.

Can anyone say teaching to the test?

The federal government has already made this mistake once. The high-stakes focus on test scores in the No Child Left Behind legislation led to a narrowing of the curriculum, widespread teaching to the test, significant amounts of cheating and lower state standards around the country.

In recent weeks, federal officials have pointed to the drawbacks of No Child Left Behind, and criticized what they call an over-emphasis on standardized testing. President Obama said he didn’t think a lot of standardized tests were necessary. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that: “Where you have folks that are being overtested and when people are teaching to the test, that’s not helpful to students at all. . . We do have districts where there are state tests, local tests, district tests – and when that kind of thing happens, that’s when folks are getting carried away.”

Yet these same officials continue to support judging teachers largely by student “growth” – a concept that will inevitably lead to precisely the kind of tests that they decry. If the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) includes the Race to the Top language about “growth” and “effectiveness,” more tests will soon be coming to a school near you.

What’s happened here in Charlotte isn’t pretty. This spring’s tests brought learning to a halt in many classes. Elementary schools were especially hard hit, as the new testing regime required that every child in kindergarten, first and second grade be tested for an hour, one-on-one. This meant that testing a class of 25 children required a full 25 hours of staff time.

Art teachers, music teachers, technology teachers, ESL teachers and EC teachers all stopped what they were doing in order to administer these tests. While teachers administered tests, many classes were supervised by assistants or babysat by DVDs.

Our experience emphasizes that an expansion of testing is not only wrongheaded, but also damaging. Our classrooms are being reshaped and our students are losing valuable learning time in service of a discredited idea.

Parents in Charlotte are fighting back: writing letters to officials, holding children out of tests, and circulating reports of problematic questions and inaccurate materials provided by the test vendor, Measurement, Inc. Mecklenburg ACTS, a Parents Across America affiliate, launched a petition challenging the tests, and quickly garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

Our fight needs to become a national one. We need to alert parents across the country to the ugly, on-the-ground, bubble-test realities of lofty rhetoric about “teacher effectiveness.” We need to band together, as the members of Parents Across America have done, to keep ESEA from becoming a testing time bomb, with repercussions that will affect every school in the country.

We need to monitor testing developments at the district, state and national level. Watch to see if your superintendant is promoting increased testing – perhaps with funding from a private foundation such as the Gates or Broad Foundations. Watch to see what’s happening at the state level – legislators in Florida and Tennessee have already enacted legislation that will expand standardized testing across their states.

Carefully examine claims that a “new generation” of standardized tests – especially the new, expensive online tests that many companies are now developing – will do a better job than the bubble tests with which we are all familiar.

Once you’ve gathered your facts, challenge these claims. Let your school board members, your state legislators and your representatives in Washington know that you don’t want your children taking more standardized tests.

Parents have the highest stake of all in high quality teachers and high performing schools. We do not want more standardized tests. We know that these tests are not an accurate or reliable way to judge teacher quality. We know that they aren’t good for our children or our schools. We need to make our voices heard as loudly as we can.

Pamela Grundy is the mother of a fourth grader in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and a co-founder of Parents Across America.

Posted on by pagrundy Posted in News & Updates, Uncategorized

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