Monday, March 9, 2015

Standardized Testing in Schools

PARCC and All the Rest (Part 1: The Trend)

There is controversy brewing about the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing here in New Jersey and in other states. This is well worth concern for parents, students and educators.

I taught English for over 38 years in a County Vocational School. During that time standardized testing reared its ugly head and became more and more important to classroom teaching. At first, New Jersey had the "Minimum Basic Skills" (MBS) test for students. That test was simply to assess whether or not students had basic knowledge and skills in reading, writing and math. It was mostly used as an evaluation of student level so teachers could figure out what their students needed to learn and how much remediation they might need in certain areas.

Time passed and gradually, these mandated tests became higher stakes in the education "game." The HSPT (High School Proficency Test) appeared and eventually, passing it became a graduation requirement--well sort of. There were all kinds of ways students could succeed in conquering the test including special remedial classes with teacher scored projects to replace the test scores themselves.

More time passed and the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) replaced the HSPT. Along the way, the stakes were raised. It became more difficult for students to evade those test scores, and the added bonus was the "No Child Left Behind" Act which, in NJ, wrapped its claws around test scores. Now, the school's efficiency was also being judged by test scores. School scores were expected to get better each year--schools had to show yearly annual progress--with larger and larger percentages of students passing the tests each year to prove that education was actually taking place. Schools failing to meet those yearly progress goals were deemed as "failing" schools and faced possible takeover by the State. The ultimate goal was that by the end of a set period of time, all students in the school district would pass the test--proof that no child had been left behind in the education process.

Sounds great on paper. After all, test scores are nice numbers you can put on pretty charts and are perfect evaluations of how much a student has learned and what he understands. Right?  Make a neat little graph for each kid if you have time--oh, wait, that was before HSPT, something called T &E, Thorough and Efficient. When I retired, I still had a few of those charts stashed in the back of my file cabinet--and it's easy for everyone to see just how much progress has been made. Even politicians can read a chart like that to see if the graph goes up or down.

But whose fault would it be if the student's happy little graph didn't go up? Why, the teacher, of course. Who cares if the student had been sick all year, had problems at home keeping her from studying, didn't have good food to eat, or simply just wasn't the kind of student who did well on academic tests. (Trust me on this one. I had hundreds of students who were master welders, auto mechanics, hairdressers, carpenters, machine tool experts, electricians, and bakers who were ready to go out to earn healthy livings and have happy lives who never were any good at taking written tests. Vocational education is "a whole 'nother world,") Nope, now it was the teacher's fault if students didn't achieve to test standards. Might as well hold them accountable.

Maybe it was time to withhold salary increases or find some other way to make teachers responsible. How about dozens of different workshops put on by big companies teaching teachers how to teach? We could learn the colors of learning, how to apply all kinds of neat little tricks in the classroom to liven things up and make sure we were reaching out to every kind of learner sitting in the desks before us. We could write twenty page lesson plans with minute details of nearly every word we were going to say in class and make sure our black/white board had goals for the day listed so our students knew what they were supposed to learn that day. Dare we deviate from the scheduled lesson because Janice in the back row asked an interesting question that might lead us all in an entirely different direction? Dare we discover and explore the strange phenomenon of twenty-three birds of prey perched on the roof next door instead of focusing on the objectives on the board?  Well, not if any one of power visited the classroom. Best be working on those lesson plans. After all, the students needed to learn all the stuff they needed to pass the test, and as a teacher, it was all up to you to see that they did.

I retired the year before the edicts hit. Part of the reason I left everyday teaching was because I saw what was coming. Already the HSPA had taken a chunk of joy out of my classroom. I was required to spend several weeks each year preparing my students to take the test.

What did I teach? Nothing about English or literature, exactly. What I taught was "How to Take and Pass a Standardized Test."

More about that in Part 2.


  1. very true..and very sad. A test should be a measure of what was taught. Period. Teachers should not be spending precious time teaching students how to pass a test like HSPA. The way it is currently set up, it is more important for a teacher to get their students through these type of tests, rather then on their lessons (maths, english etc).

  2. The amount of instructional time that is lost with PARCC is criminal. Students and teachers have spent time "practicing the test" before we have the test. When testing takes place, not only do those students miss all their classes, but two teachers are taken away from all their classes for the entire day. Those students that would have had those teachers have subs, or a super-sub situation in the cafeteria. Finally, the area of the school where the test is taking place - the media centers, the computer labs, the computer-based career major classrooms - they are also taken from the students that should be learning there. There are three to four levels of lost instructional time because of testing. And this does not include district level testing (NWEA twice per year), other standardized tests unique to career majors, semester common assessments, midterms and finals. Insanity is an understatement.