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The Answer Sheet: Principal: What I’ve Learned About Annual Standardized Testing


The U.S. Congress is — eight years late — taking up the rewriting of No Child Left Behind, and one of the key issues under discussion is just how big the federal footprint on local public schools should be. No Child Left Behind requires that students take an annual standardized test for purposes of holding schools “accountable” from Grades 3-8 and once in high school. Whether such annual testing is now being hotly debated. Here’s a post looking at this issue, by Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York, who was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. In 2010, tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Burris has been exposing the botched school reform program in New York for years on this blog. Some of her pieces are listed after the post.

By Carol Burris

“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

So began Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, at the January 21st Senate education committee hearing to rewrite No Child Left Behind. His thoughts, which were given at the end of the hearing, were the perfect bookend to the remarks of Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee, who chairs the panel and who opened the hearing on a similar theme.

Earlier, Alexander reminded those in attendance that the Department of Education should not be “a national school board.” He said that the overreach of President Obama’s Race to the Top education funding competition is inhibiting the work of states to create challenging standards. Alexander closed with an excerpt from my letter to him, which originally appeared here on the Answer Sheet. That letter talked about the steady decrease of democratic control of our schools, as well as the ineffectiveness of test-based reforms.

Although these two senators, Whitehouse and Alexander, sit on different sides of the aisle, they both expressed clear discomfort with the federal government’s intrusion into schools. As Whitehouse bluntly noted, “The superstructure of education supervision –I am not sure passes the test of being worth all the expense and all the trouble.”

The term “superstructure of education supervision” aptly describes what is euphemistically referred to as federal accountability. Since NCLB and Race to the Top, schools have been alternately bribed and threatened into compliance with federally favored reforms. It is the “outside pushing in,” with little to no concern about whether or not there is buy-in from those closest to children. The “footprint” that Mr. Whitehouse alluded to, is Sasquatch-sized.

Other members of the Senate committee couched the conversation in the language of states rights and still others in the language of civil rights. The most bewildering statement was made by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who said, “In my mind if you want to cure this problem of poverty in our country, the way to do that is by making sure that people can read when they’re in the first grade.”

I am glad the senator began the sentence with the phrase, “in my mind” because surely that is the only place his theory could be true. Even if there were advantage to the onset of early formal reading instruction (and there is not), to think that first-graders fluently reading would “cure poverty” is not only indefensible, it trivializes the great economic inequities that are the root cause of our nation’s greatest challenge.

Many of the senators expressed their sincere concerns that without annual standardized testing and sanctions for schools that do not raise scores high enough among all sub-groups of students, some schools would ignore vulnerable students. I understand their worry. I once believed the same. However, after more than a decade of this strategy, there is no evidence that yearly testing and sanctions have resulted in equity gains for students.

In fact, New York’s data may be indicating that annual testing and test based graduation requirements may now be having the opposite effect. During the past three years, the “graduation rate gap” between English Language Learners and their English proficient fellow students has expanded from 33 points to 43 points, with only 31 percent of English Language Learners graduating in four years.

In addition, New York has just phased in a new non-diploma credential called CDOS for special education students. It was passed in anticipation that fewer students with disabilities will be able to meet the requirements for a high school diploma as the Common Core graduation Regents are phased in. This certificate certifies that the student has some workplace experience—but it is not a high school diploma and it cannot be used to apply for college, trade school or to enter the military. There was testimony at the hearing that before NCLB special education students were assigned to work with the janitor. Clearly, thanks to Common Core test-based accountability, it appears those days will return, at least in New York.

Because of NCLB and now Common Core testing, I have witnessed schools move from progressive practices such as inclusion, to the grouping of special education students with ELLs and other struggling learners into “double period” classes where they are drilled to pass the test. We are seeing a resurgence in elementary school of “ability grouping,” which predictably results in classes that are segregated by race and wealth. Worse of all, a plethora of bad policies have emerged that use yearly testing results as their basis.

There is now minimal support from the research community for the use of annual test scores in teacher evaluations, often referred to as VAM. Professional organizations such as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principal,  which once either supported or were neutral on the practice, are now opposed. Even if it were a valid or reliable measure, the unintended negative consequences of VAM will especially disadvantage students who are on the wrong side of “the gap.”

Evaluating teachers using VAM accelerates the narrowing of the curriculum and makes some students more attractive than others to teach. When teachers begin losing their jobs based on test scores, how easy will it be to attract excellent teachers to schools with high degrees of student mobility and/or truancy? Who will want to teach English language learners with interrupted education, or students with emotional disabilities that make their performance on tests unpredictable? And yet Governor Cuomo now demands that VAM be increased to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Education Secretary Arne Duncan still defends the inclusion of test scores in teacher evaluation.

I suspect that much of the stubborn adherence to yearly tests comes from those who refuse to let go of the desire to put teachers on a bell curve and lob off the bottom 10 percent. It will not matter whether or not it is deserved; the hope is that it will strike enough fear in teachers that they will pump up test scores no matter what the cost to the individual child. And that allows politicians to take a bow—for higher scores and the notches on the belt for every teacher fired.

That strategy may help win elections and secure contributions from testing vendors, but surely the “superstructure of education supervision” will make our locally controlled public schools collapse from its weight. Perhaps that is the point.

On early childhood reading, see, for example, Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier, in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2013 volume 28.


Report: Requiring kindergartners to read — as Common Core does — can harm some

And you may be interested in:

Principal: I was wrong when I supported No Child Left Behind. Learn from my mistake.

How to start cleaning up the Common Core

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...