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The Dangers of Standardized Testing

Photo Courtesy of timlewisnm for Flickr (CC Licensed)

We have all heard the criticisms of used standardized testing as a measure of whether schools are making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Tests are biased, they don’t actually measure student achievement, and the pressure put on schools to make the score means that teachers spend more time “teaching to the test” than they do actually teaching.

But what about when the pressure gets too great? Do district turn to cheating the test? And if they do–what does this mean for how student assessments should be conducted? Most recently in Philadelphia, Theodore Roosevelt Middle School has been the center of the “testing irregularities” scandal. And they are not the only school cited.

The Inquirer did an article on the issue at Roosevelt, with several alarming statistics. For instance, “in just two years, the 400 seventh and eighth graders at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in East Germantown had jumped a stunning 52 points in math on a 100-point scale and 51 in reading on the statewide assessment known as the PSSA.” Now, this seems like this should be great news…if these scores are truly reflective of student performance. However, the Inquirer also did a comparison of school records with these PSSA results, and found that, “for example, 66 percent of the school’s seventh graders read below grade level in the 2009-10 school year, according to school records, but 73 percent were proficient or advanced on PSSA reading tests. Eight students tested advanced in reading on the PSSA but were on a third- or fourth-grade reading level according to a test administered at the school.” Further analysis of the students’ test answers revealed that in 2009, “results of both the reading and math PSSA exams taken by Roosevelt’s 7th and 8th graders showed a highly unlikely number of wrong answers that were erased and changed to the correct number.” The Notebook goes on to cite that the odds that these erasures occurred in this pattern naturally are “slightly less than 1 in 100 trillion.”

Now, it would be easy to villify the officials–on both the district and the school level–involved in cheating. After all, the Inquirer further notes that the Philadelphia school district has not responded well to whistle-blowers; “just last week, its governing body – the School Reform Commission – approved firing a senior administrator after the district spent $173,000 investigating the awarding of a security-camera contract and whether the staffer had leaked information to reporters,” although publicly the district has stated its willingness to reopen old investigations. In turn, the District’s response, that it never received the initial report that described the testing irregularities investigation, is hardly a compelling explanation. Whatever the excuse, those responsible for allowing cheating and the resulting test score inflation to continue should be held accountable for what they have done.

But is this any surprise? After all, it’s not a problem unique to Philadelphia. Atlanta has had its own startling cheating revelations this year. Washington, DC is being investigated. too. When we allow so much to ride on a single measure, that, as we can see, is so easily manipulated, is it any surprise that there are those who would take advantage? This is the fundamental problem with using statistics and numbers as stand-alone measures. The National Research Council of The National Academies recently looked at the issue; their report, “Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education,” revealed that even as the effects on achievement were small, “it was not fair to criticize teachers for ‘teaching to the test’ after forcing them to subject their students to narrow standardized exams” (No Child Left Behind: Frustrated Educators, Advocates Call for Overhaul, Huffington Post, 7/12/11).

This isn’t even a problem that is unique to standardized tests; it can apply to any area in which transparency can be viewed as having negative consequences. Also at Roosevelt in recent years, serious incidents such as assault dropped–from 49 in 2008-2009 to 19 in 2009-2010. More positive numbers with a negative backstory: the Inquirer received several quotes from Roosevelt teachers that “administrators routinely discouraged reporting of incidents and downplayed their seriousness.”

It is important to have open and transparent investigations into these cheating allegations. But this is also a great opportunity to explore what has led to teachers and administrators feeling that cheating is a viable option for them. There are many groups that advocate for an overhaul of the current reliance on standardized testing. So much of my experience with Mom Congress over the past two years has put a focus on the No Child Left Behind Act and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and this was reflected in both of our conversations with Arne Duncan in Washington, DC. Yet, despite the close attention of experienced leaders, we are no closer to a viable replacement.

Despite the concern over what can replace standardized tests, there has ben growing reaction to the tests themselves. Valerie Strauss, in the Answer Sheet blog on the Washington Post, outlined growing student and parent reform efforts across the country. Teachers are marching and speaking out. Parents are refusing to allow their children to be tested. Children are refusing to take the test, and instead staging sit-ins. There’s this video for the Bartleby Project, which encourages students to write: “I would prefer not to take your test,” across the top of their exams. Boycotting can seem extreme at first, but we have seen it work over and over as a powerful tool to get the attention of political leaders as well as the industry affected by the boycott. If nothing else, the cheating scandals should demonstrate that school districts feel pressured to the extreme to raise scores, even at the cost of accurately measuring their students’ learning. Not only can numbers be falsified, but they are not even a full measure of student achievement. We must find alternative ways to assess our students, both how and what they are learning, in order to better plan for an educational system that meets their needs.

Download a copy of the report on Philadelphia test scores.

See the list of schools flagged for suspicious PSSA results on three or more measures for a single grade.

Melissa Bilash is the 2010 Mom Congress delegate from Pennsylvania.  This piece was originally posted on July 14th, 2011 on her Advocay & Consulting for Education website.