By John Lancaster
America tests public school students more often than any other industrialized nation. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of the school year is allocated to some form of standardized testing either administered at the state, local or federal levels.
Historically, public school standardized testing started with the New York Regent's exam in the mid-1800s. Up to that point, teachers taught and designed exams to suit individual needs.; Even admissions to Harvard University before the Civil War were based upon a candidate's response to writing prompts and not their performance on a standardized exam. It was not until the 1930s that the SAT appeared on the academic landscape. Today, prospective homeowners seek real estate in communities with high SAT and MCAS data because high standardized test scores are associated with success in the academic arena and elsewhere. District superintendents, principals, and teachers are hired and fired based upon standardized test data.
Political and business communities initiated the contemporary appetite for standardized testing. In 2001, No Child Left Behind demanded accountability of America's schools. Knowledge competency, as assessed through standardized testing, confirmed that curricula were valid and that students were learning. At least that was the contention. Because of slumping national tests scores, numerous states adopted high-stakes exams to address what were seen as problematic academic areas.
Initially, standardized tests measured the quality of teaching materials, content mastery and effectiveness of teaching methodologies. However, many states promptly required students to pass imposed high-stakes exams in order to earn a high school diploma.
In the 1990s, an opportunity to serve on the English Language Arts creation and implementation committee arose and, with the encouragement of my department chair, I applied. At the time, MA had decided to abandon the MI Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) exam and chose to create and pilot a new test to measure academic competency of students K-12 in mathematics and language arts. &
The Education Commissioner supported standardized testing because, he felt, it demonstrated that he was trying to improve academic standards. He appointed educators from various school districts to brainstorm and develop an assessment instrument that involved higher-order and inferential thinking skills. It came to be known as the MA Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).
At first, I assumed the exam would measure basic skills and literacy competencies for average the high school graduate, but I soon discovered that was not the committee's mission. MCAS was to be a rigorous exam. The multi-million dollar investment forced schools to abandon many aspects of ELA curriculum and promote a “teach to the test” culture. School districts created committees to analyze MCAS test questions in order to more effectively prepare students for future tests. Districts purchased test preparation materials to assist at-risk students and scheduled testing classes both during and after school.
Despite extensive preparation, ELA writing prompts were long, cryptic, and frustrating for many students, especially those who in tracks not labeled advanced, accelerated or honors. Many prompts contained literary jargon that overwhelmed students and demanded a sophisticated knowledge of literary criticism. I can recall a staff member saying, "These writing prompts remind me of the prompts that were on my MA comprehensive exam."
Standardized tests have a short shelf life. Major publishing companies promote the latest test instrument to school districts. When school districts adopt a new test, the initial scores are low, and it takes about three to five years of teaching to the test for the scores to rise. However, test companies revise most tests after five years and, while their sales rise, the scores plummet again.
MA has recently been considering a change to a new exam called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Many question whether another standardized test will be worth the investment of millions of dollars.
A solution to more standardized testing is to create a paradigm shift in our educational philosophy. MA should contemplate creating comprehensive high schools that provide not only a feeder system to higher education, but career training with rigorous academics that leads to employment upon high school graduation. Students should have the option of selecting career clusters such as telecommunications, technology, health, welding, and CAD (to mention a few) that would lead to immediate employment.
Testing, testing and testing year in and year out reveals schools consist of two types of students- those who are good at taking tests and those who need guidance and a meaningful education.
John Lancaster is a former AFT MA member from Billerica who now lives in Austin, TX.