Talking Points

It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the common arguments used by supporters of testing. These points often come up at school forums. Here is how we’d reply to them.

“My child needs to learn how to face unpleasant challenges, including taking standardized tests.”
We strongly agree that children need to be challenged. But this particular challenge will not benefit your child in any way. The primary purpose of this test is to evaluate teachers, not children. This test is a “terrible test,” in the words of PS 321 Principal Liz Philips, and “an insult to the profession of teaching.”

The way to ace the open-ended part of the ELA test is to write badly: pile on empty words and phrases and disregard leaps in logic or common sense. (See: Washington Post, 2015) Students do better on such tests when prepped for them. But time spent testing students to take an idiotic test would be better spent preparing students for real-world challenges.

“My third grader is going to have to take tests in her life. I may not like those tests but she needs the practice.”

A 3rd grader is developmentally different than a 4th grader. Encouraging young children to prep for standardized tests is as likely to backfire as it is help, as doing so may feed test anxiety, which harms performance.

A typical United States public school student takes 112 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade. Most countries that outperform the United States on international exams test students a total of THREE times during their school careers. Clearly, all of that practice isn’t doing our students much good.

Would you rather have your child prepping for tests or conducting science experiments, creating her own storybook characters, or exploring social histories? Time spent doing test prep must replace other forms of learning.

High-school students can understand that “tricks” may be useful for solving test problems. This distinction (between performing on tests and performing in the real world) is lost on younger students, who have not yet mastered how to write well. As mentioned above, the way to ace the open-ended part of the ELA test is to write badly. Teaching children to write like a robot before they can write well is not a sound solution.

” If children want to be successful in their future careers, they need to deal with these tests.”

Workplaces have changed a great deal in the last few decades. Companies look for employees who:

  • Are self-directed, motivated to learn on their own
  • Can creatively problem-solve
  • Are able to apply formal learning to real situations
  • Work well in teams
  • Know when and how to lead and when to step back

These “21st Century skills” are as important as traditional analytic skills.  NONE of these skills are measurable by bubble tests.

The head of hiring at Google has said standardized test scores are worthless when it comes to hiring: “We found they don’t predict anything.”  (Kamenetz, The Test, p131)

“Without testing, there is no way to know whether our children are learning what they need to learn.”

The state tests are used primarily to grade teachers and schools, not individual students. They don’t help your child’s teacher understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses. The results come in after the end of the school year, too late for the teacher who prepped your child to use them.

When they do get the results, teachers only see how a child scores in listed categories. They aren’t allowed to view the test, even after it has been given.

“Testing helps close the achievement gap.”

We have had 14 years of federally mandated testing, more than a decade of high-stakes testing in NYC without any significant narrowing of the achievement gap, which only grew wider this year. (City & State, 2015).

“Testing is essential for identifying and understanding inequities in the public school system and for identifying teachers and schools that aren’t up to par. How are we to help communities of color and low-performing schools without this information?”

We have known for a very long time that poor school districts perform poorly. We’ve known that their buildings are more likely to have major health and safety violations and to be overcrowded. We’ve known that their teachers are less educated, receive less pay, and have much higher turn-over rates. Simply measuring the achievement gap over and over again does not solve such problems.

If annual testing of every child was essential for advancing poor and minority children,  you’d expect those children to perform better in education systems that have annual testing and worse in systems that don’t. But that is simply not the case. Most high-performing nations have no annual accountability testing requirements yet have higher average performance for poor and minority students — and smaller gaps between rich and poor students — than we do here in the United States. (NCEE, 2015)

If the powers that be are so concerned about racial and economic divides, why do they only talk about the need for testing? Why not call for increased equity? Poor schools have:

  • Less educated teachers
  • Overall less funding (on both national level and in NYS)
  • Worse facilities, with fewer resources
  • Higher class sizes

But you seldom hear the supporters of testing calling for an end these disparities!

In Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahlberg (head of Finland schools, known for being among the best in the world) makes this point:  If you were to exchange teachers in Indiana (among the lowest performing students in the USA) and Finland, the teachers in Indiana would get much better results in Finland than the other way around. Why? Because even poor students in Finland aren’t hungry. In Finland, poor students have access to health care and social supports. The Finnish teachers, though well-trained and widely considered among the best in the world, are unlikely to help the Indiana students much because they’d have  to do something that they almost never have to do in Finland: teach homeless, hungry, and sick kids.

HST increases the divide between rich and poor.

Most high-performing countries that DO have standardized tests don’t do them every year — they’ll do one every few years. Because our system requires every student to be tested every year, schools have to rely on cheap tests. Cheap tests measure low-level basic skills, not the kind of high-level, complex skills needed for 21st century.

Wealthy communities pay relatively little attention to these tests. They do relatively little test prep and provide their students with art, social studies, recess, music, and other enrichments.

For poor children to do well on these tests, their schools feel obligated to focus on test prep. Drills and worksheets keyed to these low-level tests become the curriculum. Rich public schools have physical education, art, and creative science programs (computer coding, LEGO engineering, etc.). Poor schools with lots of test prep don’t.  And most private schools–schools that the children of our policy makers attend–don’t take these tests at all.

“I agree with Cuomo that too many teachers are rated ‘effective’; it needs to be easier to fire teachers.

We’re not going to disagree, but we’d encourage you to come up with a plan to fire teachers that doesn’t involve turning school children — and GOOD teachers — into collateral damage. What we have is not simply a plan to fire teachers but an elaborate scheme packaged to look like something it isn’t.

“Evaluating teachers by test scores may not be perfect but at least it’s objective.”

Sure, using test scores is objective because it does not involve subjective, personal opinion. But just because a method is objective doesn’t make it accurate or worthwhile!  Why not just roll dice? Dice would be objective, too!

“I’m curious to see how my child would do on a standardized exam and where s/he ranks.”

If you want to see how your child performs on a standardized test, why use a bad scale? The most prestigious private schools in the city don’t use the state tests. Many do, however, take the ERB. If you are seriously focused on having your young child take a standardized test, you call always arrange to take the ERB independently, for a fee. While we don’t place any great faith in the results, at least taking the ERB won’t support the state’s focus on high-stakes testing.

“I agree that testing is a problem but I think it’s more effective to work within the system: write letters, call local officials, sign petitions, etc.”

All of those things are good too but parents and teachers have written letters and signed petitions until we are blue in the face! Politicians aren’t listening. Money talks.  The one action that politicians have responded to is opt-out. The few improvement that have been implemented were implemented in response to the opt out movement. When parents opt out of the tests, it screws up the data and makes claims to “objectivity” and “equity” a farce.

“US schools need to catch up to those in other nations. Testing will make our children more competitive internationally.”

It’s true that there are other countries with better school systems — but high-stakes testing has nothing to do it! The countries with the best school systems don’t do annual standardized testing.

When most people compare schools internationally, they rely on test scores — but test scores aren’t reliable indicators of school quality. Finland and China are both highly ranked on international tests but the quality of their educational systems couldn’t be more different. The education system in China reflects the country’s authoritarian government. Students do well on standardized tests there because China’s education system is oriented around prep for such tests. But students in this system have higher rates of suicide, mental illness, and low rates of confidence. Only about 10% of graduates of Chinese universities are considered employable at a multinational company because they lack qualities (entrepreneurial vision, grit, confidence, creativity ability to collaborate) deemed necessary in a 21st century workplace. Small wonder that Chinese parents who are able to send their children away to Western schools jump at the chance. Read Yong Zhao’s book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. (Or read Diane Ravitch’s book review, which provides a handy summary.)

As for Finland: Finland does a LOT of things differently than we do in the US. The government treats teachers as professionals, requires that they be highly educated, and pays them on a scale commensurate with other professionals. Finland doesn’t have national standards. They don’t have high-stakes tests — or any standardized tests except for a single high-school exit exam. In Finland, as in most European countries, schools serving families in need are given greater resources. In the US, we do the opposite: rich schools tend to have more resources than poor ones.  (See: New York Times, 2013)

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Schools risk losing funding if students opt out.

No school has ever lost general funds due to opt-out, not even Title I schools with over 50% of students opting out. More than 90% of NYS school districts did not make the 95% participation rate mandated by the feds last year; none of them faced sanctions. There have been a few cases where Title I schools would have eligible for grants and became ineligible due to opt out, but the grants in question specified that the money would need to go toward supporting test prep and increasing test scores.

Federal law states that schools must administer tests to 95% of students in grades 3 through 8 to receive federal funding. (The original purpose of this rule was to ensure that schools did not game the system by excluding low-performing students from testing.) But states such as New York are administering the tests to all public school children! The reason that less than 95% of students are taking them is because parents—not school administrators or state officials—are boycotting the tests.

Though government officials continue to issue threats, the chance that they would ever follow through on those threats is close to zero. Why? Because the entire rationale for testing is to improve “inequity” and  “accountability.” Reducing funding for these Title I schools, which serve low-income and historically disadvantaged populations, would render this rationale ever more preposterous. It would be political suicide.

Opting out is a risk.

Whether your child takes the test or not, there will be risks. Your child could get a stomach ache during the test, or bubble-in letters incorrectly, or get distracted from someone hiccuping nearby. More importantly is the risk of what will happen to public education and its best teachers if parents don’t step up and take a stand against high-stakes testing.

I’m afraid opt-out will hurt my child’s chances to attend a selective middle-school.

Middle and high school admissions practices vary a great deal. Some schools use state test scores, some don’t. But only 4th and 7th grade test scores are ever used for admissions purposes; 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 8th grade scores do not affect admissions.

Many of the most sought-after schools do not use state test scores at all, as these tests are regarded as poor indicators of student ability. The vast majority of schools accommodate children without state test scores (usually by weighing other factors–such report cards, portfolio work, or an interview–more heavily).

If you have questions about a schools admissions policies in regard to opt-opt, call them and ask.

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