CMAS? TCAP? PARCC? If you’re a parent, a student or a teacher, you know exactly what those abbreviations mean — standardized tests.
Thanks to the allure of federal grants, and the antics of busybodies in the Colorado Legislature, the words of Bob Dylan’s iconic song could be altered from “everybody must get stoned” to “every kid must get tested.”
Continuing the metaphor:
“They’ll test ya when you’re tryin’ to go home
They’ll test ya when you’re all alone…
They’ll test ya at the breakfast table
They’ll test ya when you’re young and able…
They’ll test ya when you’re tryin’ to make a buck
They’ll test ya and then they’ll say Good Luck.”
Classroom tests have always been with us, but state and federally mandated tests of K-12 students are a relatively recent phenomenon.
Before punitive mandates, statewide tests such as the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, created by a group of Iowa educators in 1935, were marketed to schools as instructional tools.
Administered once yearly to kids from kindergarten through eighth grade, the test was intended to help teachers, students and parents — not threaten or penalize them. Many in the 50-and-older generation surely remember the annual Iowa test ritual.
But in recent decades a new testing culture has seized control of public education.
Under the mandates of the 2004 “No Child Left Behind” law, tests are not used as tools, but as weapons.
If you’re a teacher, your students had better perform well on the tests, or your job security may be at risk. If you’re a school principal, poor test results may endanger your school’s funding or even its very existence. And if you’re a school superintendent, tests are Job One — perform or perish.
One veteran Colorado teacher, who declined to be otherwise identified, described the predictable results of the new “assessment culture.”
“As many as eight weeks every year are taken up by tests,” the teacher said. “That’s time that could be spent on instruction. The students are losing out.”
And, he/she continued, the tests are useless for instructional purposes.
“They’re administered in March and April, and we don’t get the results until August. That means you’ve finished teaching that group of students, so what’s the point?”
And even if the results were quickly available, it’s not clear that the tests measure anything meaningful.
“The kids don’t have any skin in the game, so they don’t care,” the teacher pointed out, “but the mandates force schools into counterproductive spending.
“Money that should go into smaller class sizes goes to test preparation and test-associated spending. Every school district has to have a “District Assessment Coordinator,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To the district, tests are everything.”
The testing culture may have reached its apogee in the Common Core standards, now adopted by 44 states. Adoption of such standards was a requisite for states to qualify for federal grants under the Obama administration’s 2009 “Race to the Top” program.
As described on its website, Common Core seems laudable and reasonable.
“The standards clearly demonstrate what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that every parent and teacher can understand and support their learning.”
To opponents of Common Core (full disclosure: those ranks included my daughter-in-law, Amy, a mother of six), Common Core represents a massive federal intrusion into K-12 education, one that stifles innovation, local control and individual initiative.
“I believe parents, and teachers, and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year towards college- and career-readiness,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan earlier this week.
“The reality of unexpected, crushing disappointments, about the actual lack of college preparedness cannot continue to happen to hard-working 16- and 17-year-olds — it is not fair to them, and it is simply too late. Those days must be over.”
But Amy and her allies nationwide are on the warpath, and it looks as if the testing culture is about to take a few hits.
In Colorado, a legislatively created “standards and assessments task force” has yet to come up with recommendations for easing the testing burden. But it’s reasonable to assume that some tests will be eliminated or downgraded for the state’s public schools.
For one Colorado Springs teacher, such action is way overdue.
“If you reward testing, that’s what you get,” the teacher said.
“You don’t get education.”