Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Carol Burris' testimony on the current testing regime

On Monday, the NYS Senate held hearings on testing.  Here is the testimony of Carol Burris, LI principal and one of the co-authors of the principals' letter to Commissioner King.
Dear Senator Flanagan:
I would like to thank you for holding a public hearing on the evolution of student assessments. It is vitally important that we think long and hard about the role of assessments, the quality of assessments, the learning we wish to measure by assessments, and the appropriateness of the assessment for the child being tested.  It is also important that policymakers understand the limitations of assessments—they are a snapshot of a subset of skills and content knowledge. Truth be told, learning that is important is often left out of standardized assessments due to cost as well as the difficulty involved in measuring non-traditional achievement.
When I became a principal, nearly thirteen years ago, the era of high-stakes testing known as NCLB was just beginning. I was in a doctoral program at Teachers College at the time. I would argue with great passion for why we needed NCLB and testing to close the achievement gap. I can remember many a discussion with former commissioner, Thomas Sobol, who was one of our professors, on the topic of high stakes testing.  Frankly, Dr. Sobol was right, and I was wrong.  The downside of high-stakes standardized testing has far outweighed the good.
During the past twelve years, I have seen our Regents exams diluted in rigor. I have seen the raw scores for passing bounce up and down. Many exams, especially in mathematics, have become collections of questions stitched together based on difficulty formulas derived from field test results.  Prior to NCLB, the math tests were carefully prepared based on the New York State curriculum, and the final draft was edited by a true content expert who understood not only the science, but the art of good assessment. They were tests in which parents, teachers and principals had confidence.
I applauded when standardized state testing began in elementary and middle schools. I naively believed that students would come to high school better prepared.  Frankly, that has not happened at all. I have not seen any increase in preparedness of ninth-graders due to increased standardized testing. This is not a critique of our middle schools or elementary schools--there simply has not been any improvement that can be linked to 3-8 testing.  What I have seen since ‘the bar’ was raised several years ago, is students mandated for ELA AIS services who do not need them and students with a shallow knowledge of algebra because their teachers had to frantically prepare them for a Mathematics 8 assessment as well as for the Algebra Regents.  This will be much worse next year when middle-school math teachers are themselves evaluated by scores on the Math 8 tests.
In earlier grades, testing resulted in misguided policies like Mayor Bloomberg’s 2004 policy of forced retention of low-scoring students. He was warned by researchers that multiple retentions nearly always result in students dropping out of school.  On June 1st, eight years later, the mayor acknowledged that his policy of automatic retentions was detrimental to students and he restored the power of principals to make retention decisions. When test scores, rather than professional judgment, take front and center, poor decisions that negatively alter the lives of students occur far too often. 
Although testing has not been an effective lever to increase student learning, the time spent on testing, the cost of testing and the consequences attached to the test continue to increase.  Certainly, the stress placed on our young students continues to increase as well.
This spring, the level of student stress was at its highest levels as the tests became longer, especially for the youngest students.  In order to investigate the anecdotal reports that we were hearing, I worked with a group of New York principals to create a short survey designed to give parents and teachers an opportunity to share their experiences with this year’s New York State testing. Over the course of two weeks, we were astounded by the results. Over 8000 parents across the state responded to our online survey regarding their children’s experiences with the recent 3-8 Assessments in ELA and mathematics.  Over 6000 teachers of students in Grades 3-8 weighed in on our teacher survey, as well. Although the surveys were informal, it would be a mistake to ignore what we learned.  
The New York State parents who responded expressed serious concerns regarding the impact that tests have had on their children’s health and their learning.   Of the 8000 responding parents:
  •   75% reported their child was more anxious in the month before the test.
  • Nearly 80% reported that test prep prevented their child from engaging in meaningful school activities.
  • 87% reported that the current amount of time devoted to standardized testing is not a good use of their child’s school time.
  •   95% were opposed to increasing the number and length of tests.
  • 91% were opposed to standardized tests for K-2.
  •  65% reported that too much time is devoted to test prep.
In addition to responses to questions, nearly 4000 of the respondents left comments and short anecdotes.  Parents reported that their children displayed physical symptoms caused by test anxiety, including tics, asthma attacks, digestive problems and vomiting.  Parents also wrote anecdotes that reported:
·           Sleep disruption, crying
·           Refusal to go to school
·           Feelings of failure, increasing as the tests progressed
·           Complaints of  boredom and restlessness from students who finished early and were required to sit still for the full 90 minutes of each test.
Teachers echoed many of the same concerns. 
  • 65%  of over 6000 responding teachers said that their students did not have enough time for independent reading, project-based learning and critical thinking.
  • 89% of teachers reported that their students became more anxious in the month prior to testing and during testing itself.
  • 88% said that test prep had impacted the time spent on non-tested subjects such as science and art.
Fewer than 3% believed that their students’ learning had increased because of testing.
Teachers, like parents, reported that students were anxious, stressed, nervous, exhausted, overwhelmed and suffered from headaches and stomach pains. I would be happy to share all survey results with you if you are interested.
Of course we need to assess student learning, so reform, not the abolishment of testing is needed. In my opinion, there are two simple principles that if followed, would go a long way toward bringing sense back to assessment.
First, a test should not be used for a purpose for which it was not designed.  When tests are used to evaluate schools and the people who work in them, students need to be tested for prolonged periods of time every year. When the high stakes nature of tests diminish, time spent on testing and the unintended consequences of testing, (such as adult cheating and teaching to the test),
diminish as well. Standardized tests should be one of a multiplicity of measures that let students, their teachers, and their parents know what they have learned and where they still need to grow. When a teacher and a principal look at whole class results, those results can also be used to inform instruction and modify curriculum.
Second, excellent assessments depend on trusting teachers. In my opinion, the very best assessments are the assessments of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. The IB treats teachers as professionals. There are  IB assessments that are internally scored as well as externally scored. They fall naturally within the instructional program. They are not scantron based and develop and measure students’ critical thinking skills and writing skills. Students and teachers understand the tests and the rubrics for scoring.  They are designed to help students grow, and learning and assessment are intertwined.  The IB understands that assessment has a backwash effect on instruction, therefore the quality of the assessment matters a great deal. I assure you, there are no ‘talking pineapples’ on IB exams. Feedback from teachers is seriously considered.  They are a model of student-centered assessment.
Thank you again for holding a public hearing on the evolution of student assessments. As I am sure you are aware, more than half the school boards of Texas, where all of this started, have now signed a resolution opposing high-stakes testing. Such resolutions are being passed by school boards across the nation.
I also thank you for patiently reading this long letter. As an experienced school leader who used to believe that measurement and data should drive school improvement, I fully understand the appeal of test-score driven policies.  I would ask, however, that you consider this question. On any given week, would you prefer that your eight-year old child or grandchild take standardized tests for 90 minutes or more, or be engaged in active learning?  What we want for our own children is what we should want for every child in New York State.
Sincerely, Carol Burris Ed. D., South Side High School, Rockville Centre

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I teach IB and do value the rigor and the freedom that means. Getting students to adapt to this different type of approach to learning and evaluation gets progressively harder to do as each year the students have been exposed to earlier and earlier grades of scantron/ learn and dump type testing. IB is very time intensive on the part of the teacher- reading written responses instead of scantrons means many more hours to evaluate tests and give quality feedback. But, these tests are scrutinized, feedback given about them afterward and there is the ability to actual see these expensive to produce exams after they are given. Pearson could take a page from the IB about how to develop assessments that teachers can actually their heads up while conducting them instead of being yoked into a testing regime that no self respecting educator can call educationally valuable.