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Yesterday Education Week reported the results of a study by the National Center for Education Statistics that calls into question the efficacy of state educational assessments required by the No Child Left Behind legislation. In part, Education Week wrote:

Many of the states that claim to have large shares of their students
reaching proficiency in reading and mathematics under the No Child Left
Behind Act have set less stringent standards for meeting that threshold than lower-performing states, a new federal study finds.

The
study drew an immediate and strong reaction from many public officials
and education advocates, who said it laid bare states’ vastly divergent
standards for testing students.

The report judges states’ reading and math tests against a common yardstick: the proficiency standards used by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

Released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics,
the analysis appears to back up the suspicions of those who have cast a
skeptical eye on state data showing high percentages of students
reaching the “proficient” level in reading and math.

But researchers who were asked by the Council of Chief State School Officers
to review the study’s methodology cited what they see as flaws in
comparing two dissimilar sets of exams: NAEP and those administered by
states.

Even so, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret
Spellings called it “sobering news” as the nation seeks to raise
academic demands on students.

States “must do their part by
setting high standards and expectations,” she said in a statement. “I
hope this report will be a catalyst for positive change.”

The
study was issued June 7, two days after a separate report by an
education policy group showing that student scores on state tests have
risen since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, which
President Bush signed into law in January 2002. (“State Tests Show Gains Since NCLB,” June 6, 2007.)

There are many reasons that state testing shows greater gains than that of the NAEP scores, not the least is mentioned above, that the tests are dissimilar and therefore do not measure similar things. That, however, is a straw man when it comes to practical significance. Policy makers and both liberal and conservative think tanks have used comparisons of state testing and NAEP over and over to make their case that NCLB is flawed or is working just fine (it all depends on one’s political lens). What is clear, however, is that there is a discrepancy between NAEP scores, which remain flat and state tests, which show an increase in student performance since 2002, the year NCLB went into effect.

The emphasis in NCLB policy on annual performance growth has altered the face of educational practice in the United States. School children and their teachers now spend more time in preparation for testing where they learn formulas for appropriate performance on testing instruments designed by state boards of education. In some estimations, in a 180 day school year, students and teachers spend between 80 and 100 full days preparing for testing. This amounts to fully half of the school year spent in preparing for the state tests. Even of this estimate is on the high side (let’s reduce it by 1/2) the fact still remains that children are spending 25% of their academic year learning formulas for passing the test so the school’s AYP passes the muster of NCLB.

Because schools spend so much of their time engaged in test preparation, little time is left for rigorous academic inquiry. Students no longer study the arts, engage in social studies education and science instruction is somewhere on or near the back burner. What counts is reading and mathematics. But, reading about what? Math in relationship to what? Teaching reading and math (by the way it is not really mathematics that is being taught rather it is arithmetic) in isolation does nothing to provide a context for either reading or math. These subjects become tasks to do, something like doing the laundry. They get done because one must do them but one does not necessarily have to like doing them.

High-stakes testing provides a climate in which students and teachers must focus on the testing and not on instruction or learning. In a recent conversation with a focus group of high school juniors that I recorded as part of a study I am currently working on, I asked the students about their recent performance on a written take-home exam. The results of the papers that the students turned in was disappointing. The writing was formulaic, showing no creative thinking but sticking closely to conventions and structural components that are appropriate on state mandated tests. One of the students said, “I really don’t know how to write any other way. That’s all I’ve ever been taught. All my life I learned the 5 paragraph essay and now, sadly, i have to learn a whole new way to write.” Another member of the focus group wondered, “Why do you teach us this style for so long and then tell us we have to go beyond. I’m confused.” My point is simply that these students clearly can and, when given a chance, do articulate significant problems with high-stakes testing and NCLB.

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