"Teachers have an analogy for all the testing that we are required to do,” says Melanie Morton, a Sweetwater Union High School District teacher. “You don’t lose weight if you just keep stepping on the scale and weighing yourself.”
With the passage of the federal law in 2001 called No Child Left Behind, school districts became more accountable, and this sent them into a testing frenzy. Rising test scores made banner headlines recently, but is there a dark side to testing? What are the hidden costs? What’s in it for the kids?
No Child Left Behind has created controversy among politicians as well as educators. “Instead of ensuring all of America’s children have access to a quality education,” says California congressman Joe Baca, “the legislation has tied the hands of teachers and school administrators, forced students to learn inane testing strategies instead of real-life skills, and made billions in profits for standardized testing companies.”
Most of us cannot imagine how many hours per year students spend taking tests. In addition, students spend time preparing for tests, practicing test-taking skills, and sometimes reviewing results.
Morton, who has been an English teacher with Sweetwater since 1985, recites a bewildering number of acronyms when asked what tests a high school student might take over the course of a year.
To begin with, every spring students in grades 9 to 11 take the California Standards Test (CST). The state establishes “standards,” or expectations for student performance on certain subjects: English, mathematics, science, and history/social sciences.
In addition, students in grades 9 to 11 take the Common Formative Exam (CFA) eight times a year. All students take the quarterly and end-of-course exams that the district devises for various subject areas. All 10th-grade students take the high school exit exam (CAHSEE); students who don’t pass retake it several times in 11th and 12th grades until they pass it. All 11th-grade students take the Early Assessment Essay Exam. English-language learners take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) at least once a year. LAS (Language Assessment Scales) Links is taken four times a year by students enrolled in English language development. Students who intend to apply to four-year universities also take the PSAT, SAT, and ACT in 11th or 12th grades.
Morton, like other teachers, also gives her own exams.
The “standards” on which tests are based vary from state to state — and from decade to decade. “If you have been teaching long enough,” Morton says, “you have seen the educational pendulum swing many times.” In the last swing, according to Morton, English textbooks and tests were centered on literature. One year, her students were reading “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne in preparation for a test called “a response to literature essay,” when the district suddenly instituted a change. “While in the middle of the piece of literature, the district informed us that we would not be administering that essay and would instead administer an ‘EAP [Early Assessment Program] style prompt,’ which is a completely different style of essay,” she says. New materials and new strategies for writing needed to be taught.
The most troubling test that Morton administers is the one devised by the district. She questions its validity because teachers score their own students’ work and scores are publicized across the district.
Educational theories come and go regularly — the current standards-based learning is under attack because it is costly and dumbs down the curriculum. And, Morton says, “It often appears that the tests are driven by the testing companies and the textbook companies.” Testing companies charge for devising, distributing, and grading test materials, as well as for providing test-preparation materials and storing results. To get an inkling of the money involved, for the federally mandated state standards test and the high school exit exam, the state allocated $205,752,000 in the 2010–2011 budget.
The same year, the Sweetwater district spent $574,599 on state testing research and evaluation alone, according to documents supplied in response to a public records request. Staff salaries accounted for 85 percent of the figure.
Many Sweetwater teachers criticize testing because it interrupts the pacing needed for teaching the curriculum. “Some students, some classes just don’t get the material as fast as other classes,” says high school chemistry teacher Sandra Finkleberg. “We used to teach to mastery — I would stay with a chapter until the kids got it. Now our pacing is set by the tests.”
By way of example, Finkleberg discussed the California Standards Test, which is given to students in the spring. “They are testing our kids on a full year of lessons nine weeks before the year is over. It’s bad for the kids. Chemistry and biology lessons build on one another, but I have to interrupt the course suddenly in April and teach them the concepts that are going to be on the test.”
Alex Anguiano is currently the president of the Sweetwater Education Association, but when he returns to the classroom in two years it will be as a chemistry teacher at Hilltop High School. In a recent interview, Anguiano voiced another concern — that the emphasis on testing has resulted in fewer electives being offered to students.
One educational theory that has been popular for some time is called “Teaching the Whole Child.” As the theory goes, students need academics, but they also need art, music, computer science, and other subjects to round out their education.
Anguiano says teaching to state standards “encroaches on our elective programs, so what I see is fewer opportunities for students to take classes that help them to think creatively. You might see at a school math followed by math support, if a student is struggling. Some of these same students might go from an English class to an English support class. The end result is that these students don’t have a rich, diverse curriculum.”
Maria Castilleja, Sweetwater’s director of curriculum, acknowledges that the emphasis is on a curriculum that will appear on the state standards test. “In the last five years, we have gone through an evaluation of courses, trying to make sure all the courses we offer are aligned to state standards, and on some occasions that might decrease the number of sections we offer of a specific course, and on some occasions we increased, like the band class….”