Why I don’t Care that Test Scores Went Up

My coworkers and I just found out that all of our ELA and Math scores went up this year. According my administration, I am supposed to be thrilled. But I could really care less. If anything, I’m concerned.

Higher test scores do not equal higher quality learning. Some amazing things did happen at my school this year- projects, events, celebrations, experiments, performances, parades, presentations, and yes some quality reading and math instruction. But that’s not why our scores went up. Our scores went up for at least one of the following reasons that have very little to do with meaningful learning:

  1. The demographics at my school have changed and continue to change. Like many schools in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, we started as a school serving entirely low income students of color with a high population of English language learners. A recent influx of mostly white, middle and upper class students has brought many changes- including, I would argue, these higher test scores. Because test scores first and foremost correlate to income, I worry  that prioritizing test scores inevitably makes those mostly white, upper class children more valuable to the school. Which is dangerous.
  2. While standardized tests can never truly capture authentic learning, they can and do reflect how much test prep a school is doing. And this year was all about testing. We sat through meetings about how to introduce testing language in kindergarten, powered through 2 months of “rigorous” test prep in the upper grades, sent home packets and packets of ELA and Math for homework and  stopped teaching science and social studies for weeks at a time. And I guess it “worked.” But at the expense of experiments, collaborative projects, joy, community building, field trips, meeting the individual needs of students and teachers- in short at the expense of what I would consider real learning. Not to mention healthy child development.
  3. These tests are opaque and corrupt as can be, but it is becoming clear that it was easier to get a 3 on this year’s test than last year. Meaning they were scored differently. So kids did better, justifying a future of even more common core test centric”rigor. ” Read this by Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters.

Yes I want all children in NYC to be proficient readers and mathematicians. And I am proud of how hard our students worked this year. But these high test scores have nothing to do with the quality of children’s learning. Moreover, looking ahead, this bump in test scores does not bode well for me, my fellow teachers or my students because it will undoubtedly lead to a renewed emphasis on mindless test prep and data come September- in my school and citywide.

Success Academy schools scored the highest in many grade levels this year.  What they do “works” according to their test scores. But what they actually do  is weed out needy students, endorse abusive classroom management techniques, and prioritize testing and data above all else.This is not real learning, it is not respectful of children and  families  and I would never send a child to a Success school, let alone teach in such an autocratic, inhumane environment.

So, with progressive schools with high opt out numbers like Central Park East under fire, all this celebration over high test scores has me worried. What if more and more schools are compelled to do what “works” to get those high score accolades? What if the few remaining progressive schools that champion child-centered, project based learning instead of test prep are also forced to do what “works”  to get those high scores? What if there is no where left for me to teach?

 

 

 

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Chuck the Tests- Project Based Learning is Better

We have effective, research based models for assessing student learning that do not rely on standardized testing. So why aren’t we using them?

A friend of mine recently got hired at one of the city’s performance assessment consortium schools. What is unique about these schools is that the students only take 1 test- yes that’s right, just 1 standardized test in four years of high school. So, instead of wasting valuable time on tests and test prep, portfolios of authentic student projects are used to assess learning and determine eligibility for graduation.

Also unique about these schools- Despite a population comprised of high numbers of English language learners and low-income families, these schools have far higher graduation rates than traditional high schools and an 91% college attendance rate.

How do they do it?

Teacher autonomy and “in depth” project based learning. That’s how.

I met a teacher from Brooklyn International High School at a workshop recently and wistfully listened as she described the year long  history and ecology project about water pollution she had designed with her students.  Meanwhile, in depth, interdisciplinary projects with real life relevance are few and far between in my elementary school because testing and data take priority over everything else.

Which begs the question: why can’t we have portfolio assessed middle and elementary schools too? Why can’t elementary schools apply for the same waiver these schools receive and use performance based assessment instead of torturous tests?  Especially when excellent progressive schools like Central Park East are under threat, why not use these successful alternative high schools as a model and give all schools the opportunity to choose project based learning over testing?

We know skipping standardized tests in favor of deeper learning works with our neediest high school students. And we know testing is far more cumbersome and developmentally inappropriate for young children than it is for teens. So there is no reason not to bring this successful model down to our youngest students.

If we really want to offer parents “school choice” we need elementary, middle and high schools that go beyond data factories. Alternatives like portfolios, project based learning and performance assessment should be an option for children of all ages- not just high school students.

The Real Opt Out Movement

Teachers, parents, students and administrators all have been threatened with consequences for opting out and challenging  DOE mandates.  Principals have been force fed talking points on testing, teachers have been threatened by the chancellor and parents have been fed a confusing mixture of threats and misinformation to keep them from opting out- and more important, to keep people from questioning the top down directives coming from federal and state governments.

The real story of opt out is the thousands of people- children, parents, teachers and principals who wish they could opt out but do not.

I spoke to a parent the other day who told me she hates the tests, her son hates the tests and is miserable at school but they are not opting out because…

1.The administration has put a lot of pressure on parents around testing

2. Her son is worried about what his peers would think if he went to another classroom during testing

3. They are nervous about getting into a public middle school without 4th grade test scores.

All understandable- especially for low income parents with few options for middle and high school. Just like it is understandable for teachers with mortgages and families to fear speaking out. So many teachers I work with fiercely oppose high stakes testing and  wish they could bring creativity and empowerment into their classrooms instead of test prep, but they don’t want to put their jobs at risk. And I’m sure that there are school leaders out there who wish they could use their budgets to hire more teachers instead of paying for test prep materials and curriculum. Taking or administering these tests is by no means an endorsement of high stakes testing.

So for every family that opts out- know that there are 3 families who wish they could. For every teacher that speaks out, there are 3 teachers who would say the same thing if they felt safe. For every principal who writes a letter or stands by their school’s commitment to children over data, there are 3 principals whose positions are too tenuous for them to take that stand.

Whatever we end up saying or doing-triple it- because that’s how powerful this movement really is. That’s how many of us want to see the end of high stakes testing. That’s how many of us want teachers to be respected and nurtured- not sorted and punished. That’s how many of us want to see children learning more than ELA and math. That’s how many of us want to see creativity, community, collaboration and joy in our public schools. Opt out numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.