Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Standardized testing makes us dumb

From the Technician online, by Megan Ellisor

The worst part about pre-college school life was end-of-year standardized testing. One stomach bug in May and suddenly your future was ruined. Your fifth-grade self could no longer hope to become more than a garbage person ... at least, that’s how your teachers made it seem.

Students may work hard for nine months, but ultimately a huge percentage of their grades is decided by end-of-year test scores. Standardized testing doesn’t benefit the students. The high-stakes, comprehensive tests pressure teachers to teach preparation for the test rather than students’ futures.

By feigning massive improvements on end-of-year test scores, former District Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools Beverly Hall earned $500,000 in bonuses. On Friday, Hall was charged with “racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements,” according to The New York Times.

Prosecutors recommended a $7.5 million bond for Hall. If convicted, she may face up to 45 years in prison, which is more than many first-degree murderers have faced.

Though it may seem extreme, the pressure Hall placed on teachers to cheat warrants 45 years in prison. From 2001 to her retirement in 2011, Hall falsely led the 52,000 children of the district and their parents to believe they were truly improving.

The state report said that Hall “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation, which was usually enforced on principals and teachers by some of the SRT executive directors.” Because of this, the cheating went undetected for 10 years.

Thirty-four other educators were indicted along with Hall. This includes Parks Middle School Principal Christopher Waller. In Waller’s first year at Parks, 86 percent of eighth grade students scored proficient in math — a 62 percent increase from the prior year. The passing rate for the reading test rose from 35 percent to 78 percent.

The falsified scores increased so much that Parks Middle lost $750,000 in state and federal aid because it was no longer classified as a school in need of improvement. As argued by The New York Times, “That money could have been used to give struggling children academic support.”

Instead, the educators altered their students’ answers for their own self gain. After administering an end-of-year test, some teachers would sit in windowless, locked rooms and correct the wrong answers.

Students who grew up in this cheating environment are ill-equipped for college. Nybria Troy, a 15-year-old student from the Atlanta Public School System, told NBC she fell behind due to the cheating scandal: She currently reads at a fifth-grade level. Erroll Davis Jr., who succeeded Hall as superintendent in July 2011, created remedial classes to help students like Troy catch up.

But remediation will not replace 10 years of wasted education. If tested accurately, some students may find that their intelligence level is grades below that of their classmates.

Outside of this scandal, the bigger problem is that these tests — which have high stakes for the students, teachers and their bosses — encourage cheating. So much weight is put on comprehensive testing that it almost completely disregards a student’s classwork.

This can be seen in other standardized tests, like the SAT. Some students are great test-takers and score well above the SAT average, but they may not be hardworking students. Conversely, some students may be committed to learning, but are extremely anxious when it comes to test-taking and score lower.

For this reason, more than 800 accredited colleges, including our neighbor, Wake Forest, do not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. The Washington Post says these schools dropped the standardized testing requirement because “they don’t think a high-stakes test score is very revealing about a student’s abilities and find that high school grades are a more accurate reflection.”

End-of-grade testing is a good way to ensure that students across counties are learning the same topic at the same pace. However, the fact that they make up such a large portion of students’ final grades makes for a faulty education system in which we do not learn. Fifth graders need to know that earning low end-of-grade scores does not mean they’ll become garbage people — at least, not all of them.