MORE Than Standardized Tests

MORE Than Standardized TestsBrittany, an honors student in Atlanta, Georgia, had worked hard her entire academic career to celebrate what would be her proudest moment in high school: commencement. She wanted to walk across the stage to the flash of cameras and smiles of her family just like her classmates, and then journey off to a college in South Carolina where she had already been accepted. So she gathered her proud family members from Chicago and Washington, D.C., to come to share in her joy. Brittany watched as her classmates put on their caps and gowns, and walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. But she did not;she waited all during the day to get a last-minute waiver signed. She continued to wait through the night, but it never came. She began to realize that if she graduated, it would not be quick or easy. Her problem was that she had not passed one of four subject areas in the state’s graduation test, which students must pass to earn a regular diploma. She is not alone. Thousands of students, such as Brittany, every year do not make it across the stage at graduation due to failing these state tests. And many of them, such as Brittany, were honors students who had fulfilled all the other requirements of graduation except this one (Torres, 2010).Stories such as this one are far too common and should not happen, and we have the power to change the status quo, so that no student should have to follow the same path as Brittany. This problem can be solved, though like Brittany’s case, it will be neither quick nor easy.The purpose of this proposal on replacing standardized tests with end-of-year subject tests is to convince readers that changing assessments in education will improve education, and a strong educational system will result in several positive outcomes. The problems and their outcomes as well as the solution are the result of thorough research on these tests. Though I am a novice scholar, I will include several sources that will establish my credibility regarding standardized tests. The ideas of Hillocks (2002), McNeil and Valenzuela (2001), and Ravitch (2011), who are all experts on this topic, will help to establish my credibility.Everyone is affected by the strength of our educational system, from the students and their ability to succeed in college and in the workplace, to the employers who hire them—and everyone in between. Every taxpayer is a stakeholder in education, because these tests are paid for by tax dollars, and the return on investment in education is not where it should be. Standardized tests should be abolished and replaced with end-of-year subject tests because they will save time and money, lead to increased mastery of core subjects, and diminish dropout rates.Problem AnalysisThis problem resulted on the one hand from national concern with global competition. When Sputnik rose into the sky in 1957 and Americans were concerned that Russians were outgunning us in the Space Race, millions of dollars were poured into math and science programs to bolster teaching and resultant learning in these subjects. The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act helped to fund these efforts. Confidence in our educational system was renewed when Americans set foot on the moon in 1969, but by 1983, it had eroded. Its quality so alarmed the government that its 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, warned that a “rising tide of mediocrity” would undermine this country’s place in the competitive 20th century (as cited in Zhao, 2006,p. 28). By 2001, the Bush administration authorized the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which began in 2002 and runs parallel in thinking and intent to the Race to the Top (RTT) initiative, started under the Obama administration in 2009. NCLB mandated high-stakes tests for all states and imposed a carrots-and-sticks strategy of rewards and punishments if test scores were not consistently high. The thinking is that students and teachers will work and learn more if there are serious rewards or punishments; teachers get financial rewards and schools are lauded by the media if they do well, but teachers face termination, schools face closures, and students are retained or not allowed to graduate if they do poorly (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012). Furthermore, it is thought that tests help produce a world-class education by encouraging students to reach their full potential, improving our collective productivity, and reestablishing our competitiveness on a global scale (Madaus & Russell, 2010).Another cause of the problem is that these tests are poorly designed and don’t measure what they should. The NCLB legislation from the Bush administration promised that all children would be held to the same high standards in core subjects such as math and reading, and school districts would get funding from the government to force children to take these tests; if schools did poorlyand failed to show annual progress, they would be slapped with improvement plans and further sanctions. Schools should be held accountable to—and raise expectations and standards for—all students, and the resultant improvement would benefit everyone. So it’s logical to conclude that these tests, after being in place since 2002, would improve math and reading test scores, certainly allowing fewer students into remedial college courses. If these tests improved complex skills in math and reading, students would not have to take remediation courses in college at the same rates, but this is not the case, according to Ravitch (2011): improved scores on standardized tests does not translate into the kind of proficiency needed even for first year college courses. Students are still taking remedial college courses in large numbers and at staggering costs to states that must shoulder the burden. Standardized tests will continue to decrease the class time spent on history and science and increase the number of skilled test-takers who aren’t any better at math and reading, despite No Child Behind legislation and its promise of improvement through standardized tests (Ravitch, 2011).One effect is a vicious cycle that is counterproductive to the mission of NCLB and RTT: schools compete for funding based on students’ scores, and those with low-scoring students are not just penalized, they don’t receive the needed funding, which in turn leads teachers to have fewer resources left to teach with. So their students are less likely to score well. These initiatives are aimed at improvement through high standards, great expectations, and accountability, yet real improvement has not been borne out in the literature. On the contrary, students’ motivation and teachers’ instructional methods have been negatively affected by these tests, with negative connections found between these tests and student achievement and graduation rates (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012). The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has shown little improvement in the years under NCLB (Ravitch, 2011). Nichols, Glass, and Berliner’s (2012) study about the NAEP test scores in reading and math pre- and post- NCLB concluded that students were making greater gains in math before NCLB legislation than after it; reading achievement has been unchanged pre- and post-NCLB. Scores from the two college entrance exams, the SAT and ACT, actually declined from 2006 to 2010 (as cited in Onosko, 2011), so skills needed to enter higher education have not improved despite standardized testing programs.  Our poor showing compared to other developed nations continues unabated. The Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) compares 15-year-olds from 65 countries.We rated 10th in reading, 18th in math and 13th in science, with schools that enjoy autonomy regarding assessment scoring higher (as cited in Mathis, 2011). Of course, many factors account for differences in scores between nations (socioeconomic differences, language barriers, etc.), but this is still no excuse.Another effect is the performance gap regarding socioeconomic factors. One premise of NCLB legislation was that our educational system was at fault for the low achievement levels of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. If teachers and administrators at school in poor neighborhoods did a better job, then students from these areas would excel and not become left behind their more advantaged peers. This has yet to occur to the extent the NCLB wished for. The narrowing of the achievement gap between higher and lower income groups has not occurred according to some studies (as cited in Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012) or is narrowing but at a very slow rate (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012). Berliner (2010) argues that inadequate healthcare, insufficient nutrition, lead poisoning, air pollution, domestic violence, and crime are outside factors among poor children that have more to do with school achievement than teachers or administrators. Yet these factors are not accounted for in the current system of standardized testing, and students and schools are being left further behind. Schools with at-risk students become institutions for test takers. Stress caused by standardized testing results in less time for children to play, sleep, and interact with their parents (as cited in Clemmitt, 2007), so everyday social interaction and family cohesiveness are threatened by this kind of testing. But it gets worse: very often, what happens in the classroom is directly aligned to state tests.Students and teachers have learned that their jobs and futures are tied to how well they do on these tests, so the tests are taken very seriously. This effect, teaching to the test, is pervasive; teachers essentially teach only what is tested, often to the exclusion of anything else (Hillocks, 2002; McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001).Many subjects such as history or the arts are de-emphasized; more importantly, skills that are critical to students’ success in college—research skills and lab experiments—are not taught. So the more that tests emphasize test-taking, the less they emphasize skills necessary for college, and the more they leave students unprepared for the rigor and challenge of college. In many schools, test preparation is the curriculum (Menken, 2006) and also what is valued in its content. For example, in writing, the tests influence what is valued in the instruction of writing and what is encouraged in student thinking: a kind of formulaic writing or “organized blether” (Hillocks, 2002, p. 80). Tests are teaching students very negative ideas about writing: one-hour timed writing on the five-paragraph theme forces students to make “safe” choices because drafting and revising are not practiced. Writing tests don’t require students to examine their work for consistency, relevance, or impact; it promotes a way of thinking that removes the necessity of critical thought (Hillocks, 2002). Thus many classroom hours are spent practicing writing that does not promote the kind of critical literacy valued in higher education or the workplace. The tests drain students of higher-order thinking skills and are not teaching them to become “creative, critical and curious learners” (as cited in Koch, 2000, “Current Situation,” para. 4).One more by-product of this testing craze is that students feel disenfranchised from school and simply drop out. Standardized tests have not improved, or according to recent studies, have even exacerbated the high school dropout rate (as cited in Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012). High school dropouts are far more likely to be unemployed compared to college graduates, and are much more likely to end up incarcerated and to get public assistance compared to their counterparts who graduated from high school (as cited in National Dropout Prevention Center/ Network, 2010). So the indirect costs of dropouts, let alone public assistance and correctional facilities, are overwhelming our government at a time when it can least afford it. The indirect effects of funding standardized testing are staggering, considering that these government programs are funded through taxpayer dollars. Race to the Top’s bill has been tagged at $4.35 billion (as cited in Onosko, 2011), not to mention the huge investments in time and energy that all stakeholders must invest in competing for this money. A solution is not only desirable; it’s unconscionable not to consider.Figure 1: No Child Left Behind Act Being Signed into Law, 2002Figure 1:  President George W. Bush is flanked by members of Congress and students as he signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2002. Source: Save Education (and GOP Consistency): Dump No Child Left Behind (2010).As shown in Figure 1, NCLB was signed into law in 2002 and the image above reflects the good intentions that this initiative engendered: the president and smiling members of Congress, including Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, and John Boehner, a Republican, along with children in front of the American flag. Despite their best intentions, these tests have not fulfilled the promise of raising the quality of education in our schools, and have instead left a trail of broken promises, high school dropouts, and no substantial returns on investment. As a result of standardized tests, our children have been left behind and are falling to the bottom of the heap!SolutionThe best plan to solve the problem of standardized tests is instituting the MOST, or Mastery Of Subject Tests, which are the end-of-year subject tests to be administered to each student before graduation, to determine his or her mastery of the area studied in high school. Because these tests would be administered and graded by individual school districts throughout the country and not from Washington, D.C., they will decentralize control of students’ learning away from government officials who know next to nothing about these students, and into the hands of content-area teachers who know their students best. These tests will also raise the standards and expectations of all students, who will choose the content areas they wish to be tested in, and focus on mastering those areas in high school. Thus, when they take the tests, they are motivated to show that they are masters of one field instead of being jacks-of-all-trades. The standards of mastery will be higher when you have students improving year after year on a content area of their own choosing, rather than having their focus scattered on fields that they have to desire to pursue after graduation. These tests will save everyone both time and money, as shown in the next section, Benefits, and will lead to increased mastery of core subjects, as well as diminish dropout rates.These end-of-year subject tests are better than solutions that have been proposed, such as portfolios, since these tests would be objective determinants of learning rather than subject artifacts of courses. The portfolio may be an accurate representation of the students’ abilities, as well as their growth throughout high school, but it is far too subjective; mastery would be determined by the judge who reads the portfolio, whose personal biases would be too difficult to control for in such an important test. Also, portfolios are too costly in terms of time and resources; the process of gathering and housing these documents would be too large a task for the last few months of a student’s final year. For consistent scoring of portfolios, one study determined that it would take 20 minutes to 1 hour to score one portfolio by one judge; this would be doubled if two judges were used (as cited in Dietz, 2010). If 40 minutes to 2 hours sounds like a lot, multiply that by the number of graduating seniors, and you have numbers too unrealistic to consider. Plus, the criteria used to judge each assessment would have to be aligned to the courses the student took, to be seen as equal to a standardized test (as cited in Dietz, 2010), which would be problematic in terms of showing equal levels of rigor and substantive content. Of course, having no test whatsoever is not viable, as it does not prepare students for assessments that will be commonplace in college and the workplace. Having the current college entrance exams, the SAT or ACT, replace standardized tests for everyone is also not viable, as not everyone will pursue college; those who opt to enter the workforce immediately after graduation would not be well served by these tests.There are three steps in putting this plan into action. First, these must be constructed and administered by experts in individual school districts. A committee of specialists in different fields must ensure that each test assesses knowledge that students should have in each school subject. The test would be multiplechoice, short answer, and essay for more traditional subjects such as English and history; for the arts or music, the test would be performance-oriented. Next, students must choose and take the test that is most appropriate to their future careers: Students interested in history would be tested in that subject area, and those interested in music would perform for their test. Finally, committee members must decide whether students have passed the test, which would be administered early in their senior year; students must be notified about their passing this test so that they can earn their high school diploma. If students fail, they should be given ample opportunity to retake the test. If students still fail the test, they might consider another subject area. For example, if students interested in a career in music consistently underperform on the test, then they should be counseled to try another test, because maybe a career in music isn’t showing the best of their talents. Thus these tests more accurately assess students’ strengths and indicate which careers are best suited to them. They will produce high school graduates more prepared for their chosen careers and, as the next section will prove, these tests will be more cost effective and benefit all stakeholders of education.BenefitsThis plan will help to save time and money. Additionally, this plan will put to better use the collective energy of stakeholders in education—students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the public—who are currently caught up in the standardized testing craze. The most recent price tag for the current testing system is $4.35 billion (as cited in Onosko, 2011). The proposed plan could accomplish the same goal but at a far lower cost in terms of money. If the cost of time and hours for each individual district’s subject-matter committee is $1.43 billion, it can be accounted for by including each of the current school districts of 14,310 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004) and giving each one $100,000 to cover costs. Even with rate-of-inflation increases, that is much lower than the current system. As shown in Chart 1, the cost is lower than the previous system. By Year 10, it could be reasonably estimated at over $3 billion, far less than the almost $7 billion the current system would cost. Additionally the time it takes for standardized tests versus the proposal plan is no contest when you determine the amount of time with which schools are consumed by test-taking strategies. Plus, the number of graduates would increase because students would be far more interested in attending schools that are aligned to their future interests, and taking tests that measure their mastery of those interests. A committee of subject-matter specialists will need to be convened to start this project. A focus group consisting of educators at all levels of the subject, as well as people working in that field, will help to construct, disseminate, and assess these tests. 

Figure 2: Cost of Current Testing System vs. Proposed Testing System 

Figure 2: This chart shows the cost of the current testing system in billions of dollars in blue in Year 1 of the program, and then again in Years 5 and 10. The proposed testing system is shown in red in the same 3 years: Years 1, 5, and 10. Clearly, the proposed system will save billions of dollars in the short term as well as in the long term.ConclusionLet’s help our students achieve the most with the proposed MOST, or Mastery Of Subject Tests, initiative. It will help students master the subject they have learned about in high school, and not force them to pass tests that are not a part of their future. If we don’t act fast to replace standardized tests, more and more students will fall through the cracks and drop out of school. Our current model for K–12 education uses a one-size-fits-all approach that just leaves our children behind, instead of giving them the opportunity to reach their full potential. If we are to maintain our position as a 21st century superpower, we must educate a highly skilled, technologically savvy workforce that can handle the demands put in front of them. Also, if we are to maintain our current position as the center of the world regarding our athletes and entertainers, we must nurture their talents early on in their careers, instead of blocking their talents in an avalanche of testing in subjects that aren’t relevant to them. After all, America is known as the land of opportunity, and if we continue to use standardized tests, we may become known as the land of lost opportunity.No Child Left Behind has left nobody ahead, least of all our country’s educational standing compared to our competitors around the world. It’s time to bring back power to the people. Contact me at [email protected] and join me in fighting for a better tomorrow for our children. Sign up for updated information on our progress, and contact your local legislators who can spur action with the local districts in the hope of effecting change at the national level. The time to take charge of our children’s education is now. To get the most out of our children’s education, let’s support MOST!  ReferencesAdelman, C. (1999). Answers in the tool box: Academic intensity, attendance patterns, and bachelor’s degree attainment.Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.Albertson, K., & Marwitz, M. (2001). The silent scream: Students negotiating timed writing assessment. Teaching English in a Two Year College, 29(2), 144–153.Berliner, D. C. (2010). Are teachers responsible for low achievement by poor students?Education Digest, 75(7), 4. Retrieved from http://www.eddigest.com/Bridgeland, J., DiIulio, J., &Morison, K. (2006). 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