I’m gravely concerned about a recent posting in Teacher Week by Renee Moore, a former Mississippi state teacher of the year and Milken Award winner. In a post entitled “Fixing NCLB: How Testing Hurts Disadvantaged Kids”, Ms. Moore makes an impassioned case about the damage that high-stakes accountability through standardized testing can do to students, particularly students with special education needs and students from poverty.
Ms. Moore describes a student with disabilities who lost confidence in himself and all motivation to do well because he had to take a test at his grade level. She talks about the deplorable resource inequities between affluent, all-white schools and poor, all-black schools, and decries the fact that poorer schools can lose funding under new NCLB plans because of low test scores. She rails against the “drill and kill,” “control and remediation” practices of high poverty, low performing schools, where the focus is solely on getting kids to pass state tests.
While I respect Ms. Moore’s experience and knowledge, I have a significantly different perspective on testing. I’ve seen how testing can have a powerful positive impact on teaching practices and students’ lives if used knowledgeably and systematically, in a system committed to continuous learning and improvement. Most teachers and students have never experienced this, so the railing and wailing isn’t surprising.
I agree with Ms. Moore that students lose all confidence and motivation when they feel they aren’t smart, that low performing schools should not lose funding and resources and that all students deserve coherent, rigorous curriculum and instruction. However, I completely disagree that we should get rid of testing.
The tool is not the problem; the hand that wields the tool is. Whether testing motivates or demotivates teachers and students, helps close achievement gaps or widens those gaps, improves curriculum and instruction or reduces practice to a daily grind, is all a matter of how it is used.
The key difference is how testing is used, in what context and with what process. When districts and schools adopt the SMART Goal Process, they provide teachers and students with both context and process. Gilmer ISD in east Texas is a great example of a district that has so fully embraced the SMART Goal Process, it now lives in the DNA of every student, teacher, administrator, and board member.
Since Texas is “ground zero” for NCLB and testing, I could make the case that there is potentially more harm that could be done to students in Texas than in any other state. But the opposite is true in Gilmer, a rural district that is changing its culture of generational poverty.
What does this look like from the students’ perspective at Gilmer?
Here’s just one anecdote of many that serves to illustrate. Claudia is a 6th grader who, at the beginning of the year, tested at 2nd grade for math. She had never passed a standardized math test in all her years in school. She had low self esteem; you could see it in the way she slouched into school, scuffling her feet, looking downward through the long hair hanging in her face. In Texas there is a measure for annual growth; the nominal score for one year’s growth is 34. At the end of this year, Claudia’s score was 410. Formerly labeled as “special education,” she took the 6th grade math test at the end of the year and missed passing by just 2 questions. She ran around the school whooping with delight, sharing the news with her friends, teachers, and principal. The next day Claudia showed up with her head held high, her hair back, a spring in her step. This year Claudia also began setting goals at home, focusing on her relationships with her parents and siblings. Claudia’s goal is to become a business manager, and she is committed to taking as much math as she can. She now knows she’s smart and can do it.
Ms. Moore is involved with a national group of teachers that is seeking to influence the Obama Administration over changes to NCLB policy. As a board member on both the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Ms. Moore definitely has some leaders’ ears, and it’s not unlikely that her group could have an impact on reauthorization policies. Test bashing has been a popular practice for years, particularly among teachers. My concern is that the Administration will respond by backing off from the tool versus educating the hands that hold the tool.
Have standardized tests been improperly used? Absolutely.
Is testing the problem? Absolutely not.
What we need is knowledge about how to use testing in the context of standards-based instruction and assessment, to build confidence, motivation, and leadership capacity. Without that knowledge, we’ll continue to do damage to our students—with or without tests.