Standing Up to Testing: The Scoop on Statewide Exams

Statewide exams have become a burden for struggling schools and a huge source of anxiety for both kids and parents.
Students protesting Students and parents
rallied against state testing in
New York City last April.

Heather Weston

Fourth grade was the breaking point for Edy Chamness. That's the year her son Christopher's highly regarded elementary school in Austin required him to take 14 standardized tests: ten practice exams throughout the year, culminating in four statewide ones that measure student aptitude in English and math. "There were packets of test-prep homework every week that weren't related to what he was learning in the classroom," says Chamness, a former fourth-grade teacher herself. "It was painful for him to sit down and look at them, much less complete them on top of his other assignments."

Chamness says Christopher, a good student, was far from the only child who was feeling test-prep anxiety. But when she voiced her concerns, district administrators explained that the school was ranked as an "exemplary campus" by the Texas Education Agency because its students excelled on standardized tests and that the assessment exams were a key part of maintaining its prestigious status.

So last spring, Chamness and her husband took the bold step of having their son skip 12 of the 14 tests (she couldn't find child care every time). Christopher spent the days out of school studying the Revolutionary War and reading Johnny Tremain. Chamness confirmed with the principal that the state doesn't require grade-schoolers to take these tests to move on to the next grade. Still, the district cited a Texas law stating that a parent may not remove her child from class to avoid a test and that doing so could result in his being placed in remedial classes. (Ultimately, a teacher went to bat for Christopher and he was promoted into a regular class.) That may sound like a harsh reaction. But allowing parents to pull their kids from standardized tests is risky for school officials; especially when the stakes of the tests are so high.

The Rising Backlash

Standardized tests have been part of American elementary education for more than a century. They were established to help teachers gauge whether a student needed more support in a particular subject, but the goal has changed radically since the enactment of The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) by Congress. This widely criticized legislation requires public schools to test the math and reading proficiency of students in grades three through eight each year in order to receive federal funding. Now these statewide tests, generally administered in the late spring, are used primarily to evaluate the quality of a school and its teachers. (Districts may also use the tests to determine if a student should be placed in a basic or an accelerated course for the next academic year or asked to repeat a grade, but they are not required to do so.)

This new level of accountability has been in part an attempt to help our nation's public schools confront the stark and long-standing achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their more advantaged peers (though little progress has been made on that front so far). The law's biggest impact has been the added pressure on our nation's elementary and middle schools to perform. It mandates that students need to show "adequate yearly progress" on test scores, and by 2014 they must meet 100 percent proficiency standards in math and science -- a seemingly laudable goal that many education experts see as just plain unachievable. Schools that fall short of the mark may face being shut down. "No Child Left Behind is the Death Star of American education," says Diane Ravitch, Ph.D., author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "Once a school is labeled as failing, many families find a different one or move away or enroll in a charter."

It's no wonder that districts have added practice tests to help students prepare for standardized exams. But some may have gone overboard. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a watchdog organization, says that the 14 total exams at Christopher's Austin school are only "moderately high," and that some districts have tests every few weeks throughout the year.

Concerned about the stress these exams place on their kids, a growing number of parents are pushing back. Chamness joined United Opt Out National, a grassroots movement whose 3,000-plus members have their kids skip standardized tests as a form of civil disobedience. In New York City, a coalition of parents are pulling their kids from "field" exams, which testing companies use as a "focus group" to determine whether their questions are grade-appropriate. Last spring, hundreds demonstrated against the statewide test, which was based on a new curriculum that teachers didn't have time to implement properly.

Parents and kids aren't the only protesters. In 2012, more than 400 Texas school boards adopted a resolution urging lawmakers to scale back testing. And the state's House of Representatives passed a bill last April that, if it is signed into law, would reduce the number of year-end exams that students need to pass to earn a high-school diploma -- from 15 to 5. The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers' union, supports such reductions. "High-stakes standardized tests punish students, teachers, and schools, but they don't make students any smarter," says NEA president Dennis Van Roekel.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees that the existing system is broken. "There has been an overemphasis on a single type of test," he says. Duncan would prefer to measure students' academic growth based on a range of indicators beyond one test score, and he wants teachers and principals to be evaluated based on multiple, locally decided measures. In 2010 the Obama administration asked Congress to reauthorize NCLB with modifications. That hasn't happened, so the Department of Education (DOE) has granted waivers to 39 states and Washington, D.C., allowing them to avoid sanctions provided they enact plans that prepare all students for college and careers, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching.

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