Teacher Melanie Morton holds the manual for LAS Links, one of the bewildering number of standardized tests students will take in a year.
"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.”
Sweetwater Education Association president Alex Anguiano says testing has resulted in fewer electives being offered at schools.
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….”
Fewer choices, fewer electives, are available in poorer areas. “The more affluent parts of our district have a greater number of electives because they have fewer support classes,” Anguiano says. “Students who are looking for a richer curriculum will transfer out of the schools that have no electives.”
“We’re going to end up losing a bunch of kids if the state doesn’t start moving in a different direction,” says Mary Smith, a middle school teacher who prefers that her real name not be used. “Not every kid is going to go to college; we need electives for kids that want to go into service fields, like my husband, for example. The only class he ever showed up for in high school was woodshop. It’s a shame that they just keep cutting and cutting from those programs and putting all the emphasis on English and math.” Smith says that the woodshop classes laid the basis for her husband to go on to become a successful tradesman.
One of the electives Smith laments losing on her campus is Technology Lab, which incorporated aerodynamics and other branches of science. “If it’s not in the curriculum, then we can’t teach it, which makes a teacher’s creativity much less than what it could be.”
Tracking, or directing students to certain classes based on their test scores, worries teachers as well. In the last swing of the pendulum, tracking was considered harmful. A Stanford study from 1994 reported that tracking limits students’ opportunities. The study found that many students who aspire to attend college are not placed in appropriate classes and “parents often don’t know when a student has been tracked out of college-preparatory science and math classes.”
“Tracking is 100 percent in motion,” says Smith. “For example, in the magnet program that I teach in all the students are obviously already tracked because all of my students have scored proficient or advanced. Then, our school has the ‘collaborative team’ with many special education students, and then the middle-of-the-road students.”
Anguiano relates a story of how tests invoked another kind of tracking at a Sweetwater district school. “About six years ago, at Granger Junior High School, students were issued different colored shirts based on their California Standards Test scores,” he says. “That kind of indicates just how serious the problem is. After I shared that story with the school board the practice stopped.”
If testing absorbs classroom time and disrupts the pacing of instruction, what’s in it for the kids?
Maria Castilleja, Sweetwater’s director of curriculum, says No Child Left Behind “is allowing educators, classroom teachers, administrators, parents, and students to evaluate the learning experiences that we are providing the students and to assess whether those learning experiences are valuable.
“The more frequent we test, the sooner we can intervene and assist students in acquiring the state standards,” she says.
However, James Bogart, who teaches Human Performance and Well Being at Rancho del Rey Middle School, disagrees. “Right now, California state testing is only for administrators, because their scores are looked at and then they are possibly fired or promoted because of them. So the administrators turn around and put the pressure on the teachers to get the scores higher. If you look at the states where testing is tied to bonuses and merit pay — Texas, Georgia, North Carolina — statistically, cheating has gone up.”
But it’s not necessary to look so far afield to see how pressure to produce plays out. In June, a Union-Tribune article exposed a Sweetwater principal who had adjusted students’ Ds and Fs upward. As the article states, “The grade changes could help improve the school’s graduation rate, an important measure of success under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.” The principal, Diego Ochoa, subsequently resigned.
Bogart believes that students would be motivated to score higher if they had an investment in the results. “When the students are held responsible for that same test, when they are given some kind of grade, whether they get a bonus or a full bump up on their letter grade, then they have more of a buy-in.”
Castilleja concurs with Bogart on the idea of student buy-in. Although she is a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind, saying that it’s “more positive than anything else nationwide,” she believes the current assessment practices are “not perfect.… We are hoping that [federal] changes are done in a way that they could have an impact on the grades of the students and [that tests] could be given at a certain time of the year and provide the results soon enough so the students could see how they’ve done.”
According to Castilleja, since No Child Left Behind began, the number of Sweetwater students who transfer to San Diego State has increased and student preparedness has improved. Sweetwater has a college transfer program called Compact for Success. The number of students transferring “has grown from 88 students in 2000 to 597 in 2011.” These students are able to enter college without needing to enroll in remediation classes because their proficiency rates are up. (About 6000 students graduate from Sweetwater Union’s schools each year, according to the California Department of Education’s educational demographics office.)
Is test-taking “turning kids off from the real joy of learning?” Joseph Pistone wonders. Pistone teaches math full-time at Sweetwater High School and computer science part-time at Palomar College. He doesn’t dispute that test scores are rising, and he says “that’s all well and good,” but he stresses that there is a qualitative difference between training a student to perform on a multiple-choice exam and educating a student to think mathematically. “Kids will graduate and know the Pythagorean theorem, but go back in a few years and I guarantee many of them won’t remember it. We’re just training kids the way we train them on assembly lines: here comes a car, you pick up the bumper, you move the bumper over here, you put the screw in here…”
Pistone, like many others, feels that multiple-choice bubble exams are not a real test of learning or the ability to problem-solve. He likens the test mania to what happened with the college entrance exam. “The SAT was supposed to be a good measure of how well you will do in college, but we have testing agencies out there now that are so good at training you to take the test that a good score doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to do well in college. What you’re doing is kind of fooling the judge.”