I will be posting a series on high stakes testing and opting out on this blog. Why? In other states where high stakes testing has become the norm, parents and educators are discovering that what is happening is harmful to their children and to education in general and they are pushing back by opting out.

Unfortunately, high stakes testing has officially begun in Seattle.

It started with the following memo from Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda issued this school year:

“Beginning this fall, teachers who have been on this system for two school years prior to 2012-2013, and who teach tested subjects and grades, will receive a student growth rating based upon two assessments and a two year rolling average of student assessment data.”

– José Banda, Superintendent Seattle Public Schools

To follow is the first in a series of posts describing what high stakes testing is, how it began, the ramifications of this type of testing and  how it will affect every student in our Seattle Public School system.

High Stakes Testing: A Little History

– Dora Taylor

“…I discovered then, in my early teaching career, that learning is best driven by ideas, challenges, experiences, and activities that engage students. My experience over the past 45 years has confirmed this.

We have come far from that time in the ’60s. Now the mantra is high expectations and high standards. Yet, with all that zeal to produce measurable learning outcomes we have lost sight of the essential motivations to learn that moved my students. Recently I asked a number of elementary school students what they were learning about and the reactions were consistently, “We are learning how to do good on the tests.” They did not say they were learning to read.

It is hard for me to understand how educators can claim that they are creating high standards when the substance and content of learning is reduced to the mechanical task of getting a correct answer on a manufactured test.”

-An excerpt from An Open Letter to Arne Duncan by Herb Kohl.

As this quote by Herb Kohl denotes, the emphasis on testing has created a culture of test takers and test givers in our public schools. This focus on testing leads to unnecessary pressure on students to perform well on a standardized test. It causes a teacher to emphasize a narrow scope of material. It leaves little opportunity for a student to develop their creative and critical thinking skills and it is used incorrectly as a tool in the evaluation of a teacher, principal and a school with serious consequences to the student and their community.

My experience as a parent and a teacher 

The results of high stakes testing did not become apparent to me until my daughter and I moved to another state and a new school.

From pre-school through 7th grade, my daughter attended a small private school. The emphasis at the school was on understanding there were different paths to solving a problem. This approach included math.

My daughter excelled in math. She found it fun and challenging and had accelerated to discussing areas of physics and astronomy with her teachers. The staff appreciated her interest and enjoyed spending time talking to her on related subjects.

There were no standardized tests given, just the tests that the teachers developed based on the material provided in the class.

Then we moved. I selected a public school based on state test scores. My reasoning was that if the overall test scores were excellent, the teaching staff and school must be excellent as well.

My daughter started school, ready to take on all her subjects with confidence and a joy of learning that she had developed over her years at the previous school.

Then she started to have trouble with math. She found it boring and seemed to be struggling with it. She would come home and tell me that the other students knew how to take a test but she didn’t. Her joy of exploring math began to diminish. She had learned that there were different ways to solve a problem but at her new school, there was only one way. Instead of discussing String Theory she was learning baseball scores. Apparently the teacher thought that the class could better relate to how Mariners’ Ichiro was doing in terms of stats than other concepts related to math. My daughter, having no interest in baseball, and  therefore no interest in the information that the teacher was providing.

The Vice Principal intimated to me at a PTA meeting that with the No Child Left Behind Act, there was little room for experimentation or deviating from the prescribed curriculum. The school needed to perform at a high level in terms of test scores, that was expected by the Federal Government and by the parents.

In other words, the math and science material had been dumbed down to match the simplified questions that would be on the test. This is called ‘Teaching to the test”. My daughter and I would have none of that.

Fortunately, we discovered a progressive alternative school in Seattle, Nova High School. The extraordinary principal and staff once again made her comfortable with her own intellect and methods of exploration. There she thrived. The emphasis at Nova is not on test scores but on student oriented project-based learning.

My other experience has been as a teacher introducing architecture to students in grades 3 through high school.

What I discovered over the years is that students who are inculcated in test taking expect me to provide for them answers to solve a design challenge. They think that there is one way to approach a problem. During my time with these students, my goal is to help them understand that there are as many ways to develop a solution as there are people in this world.

In general, I can guess what type of school a student has been a part of, whether it is test oriented, alternative, private or British. When a child is raised understanding that a problem can be solved in more than one way and that many times there is more than one correct answer to a question, there is also a joy in creating, building and problem solving.

 What is high stakes testing?

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into Federal law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of the “War on Poverty” program. This bill ensured that children in poverty would receive additional funding for their school programs. The funding allocated was to include the professional development of teachers, class materials, and support for parent involvement. This federal money is referred to as “Title 1” funding. (Note: Part of the original ESEA agreement ensured there would not be a national curriculum decided by the Federal government, but rather that each state would determine its own curriculum.)  ESEA was to continue for five years, but Congress has reauthorized the bill every five years and each time it is reauthorized, members of Congress, along with the President, have made changes to the bill.

Originally the ESEA was based on need and not on test score results. NCLB changed that.

In 2001, during George W. Bush’s administration, Congress made the first significant changes to ESEA and renamed it the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Every child in a public school that received Federal funding was tested every year from grade 3 through grade 8. Each state would determine what actions to take if a school was deemed “failing”. These schools judged as “low performing” would receive additional assistance from the Federal government and students who attended chronically “low performing” schools would be able to transfer to another school.

Under the NCLB Act, all public schools in all states are to reach 100% “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014. If a school does not meet its Academic Yearly Performance (AYP) goals based on test scores, a series of steps are taken.

This process begins with the school being placed on notice and ends with the restructuring of the school. Restructuring can be either converting the school to a charter school, firing the principal and staff or turning the school over to the state.

The No Child Left Behind Act was never fully funded by the Federal government. School districts have had to take on the cost of creating the curriculum and pay for the development and implementation of the required standardized tests. These costs can rise to millions of dollars.

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, introduced in 2012 A Blueprint for Reform. It would reauthorize ESEA. Right now the bill is in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and has been amended to read Student Success Act.

Because Congress has failed to reach an agreement on the reauthorization of ESEA, the Obama administration is now offering a waiver to the requirements of NCLB. The requirements for this waiver include agreeing to accept the Common Core State Standards, a national curriculum in math and English. This is illegal according to the original ESEA. States also must agree to evaluate teachers and principals based in large part on test scores.

With this waiver, tests and testing become even more significant in the life of a student and teacher. This focus on testing is referred to as high stakes testing because so much is at stake: a teacher’s career, the tenure of a principal, and even the life of a school or community.

This waiver can be expensive as well. The California State Department of Instruction determined that it would cost $2.5 B to $3.1 B to comply with the requirements to receive the NCLB waiver. California decided not to apply.

When President Obama was sworn into office, his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, unveiled the Race to the Top (RTTT) program. The program included financial incentives for states if they agreed to particular requirements which were similar to the NCLB waivers. The requirements included providing alternative routes for teacher certification as well as evaluating teacher and principal “effectiveness” and merit pay based on test scores.

Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program also requires the “lowest achieving schools,” defined as schools that 1) were in the bottom 5% of student performance based on test scores and 2) were receiving Title 1 funds, to agree to undergo an “intervention.” Such an intervention could include one of the following:

  • Closing the school.
  • Firing the principal.
  • Firing half of the teaching staff.
  • Closing the school and converting it into a charter school.

Additionally, the Race to the Top program requires the state to remove the cap on charter schools and adopt K-12 common core national standards.

This program was a competition between states with the winners taking a portion of the $4.35 billion appropriated for the Race to the Top program. With all states feeling the financial pinch, 40 states and the District of Columbia submitted proposals for Race to the Top funding. Twelve states were awarded a portion of the $4.35 billion based on their description of how they would meet the Race to the Top requirements. All states that submitted their plans were to follow through with their programs whether they received Race to the Top funding or not. For some states, the funding they received was not enough to cover the costs of developing and implementing both the new curriculum and the testing that was to be designed to accompany the Common Core Standards.

With this emphasis on test results, whether by way of Race to the Top or the No Child Left Behind waiver, the scope of instruction has narrowed to math and reading, and within the tight confines of the Common Core Standards.

Part 2: High stakes testing and opting out: The Types of Tests