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Students Say Standardized Tests Kill Learning

by Gilad Edelman | Feb 10, 2014 9:24 am

(13) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Schools, The Hill, School Reform

Gilad Edelman Photo Jesus Morales wishes he knew more American history. He got to study it freshman year — but then his history class spent a whole marking period on standardized test prep.

“Content-wise, we stopped at the Puritans, and we were supposed to get all the way to the Industrial Revolution,” said Morales (at right in photo), who is now a senior at Wilbur Cross High School. “We didn’t get to cover any of that material because we were preparing for CAPT,” the mandatory statewide Connecticut Academic Performance Test for tenth-graders.

Morales spoke about that Saturday at the Wilson Branch Library, at a meeting called “New Haven Youth Speak: High(er)-Stakes Testing & The Wellbeing of Youth.” About 50 parents, students and educators gathered there to discuss the shortcomings of state-mandated standardized testing.

The gathering, sponsored by Central Connecticut State University, was part of a statewide effort to organize community resistance to the adoption of tests under the new Common Core standards. The tests, which are being piloted in New Haven schools this spring, have been criticized for being too difficult, and praised by others as setting needed new rigorous standards for student achievement. (Read more about the Common Core tests here.)

During much of Saturday’s meeting, it was unclear whether the discussion was about resisting the new standards or getting rid of testing altogether. In any case, the kids are feeling standardized-test fatigue—and they’re not convinced they’re benefiting from it.

Jacob Werblow (at left in photo), a professor of education at CCSU, led the roundtable-style meeting. He encouraged parents to opt their children out of the new tests, which he called “illogical.”

“There’s such an intense focus on application of language and literacy that younger children who don’t have the foundation really struggle,” he said. “If you don’t have the foundation in literacy, how can you apply it? At higher grades, there are no connections to students’ own lives or to society, historical context. That doesn’t make any sense.”

There was widespread agreement that even the existing system of standardized tests is bad educational policy.

The students, all high achievers, said testing can be stressful and discouraging for their classmates.

“I have friends who can edit a video in 10 seconds, who can code an app, and they aren’t applying to colleges,” said Christine, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy who asked that her last name not be used. “Because of their test scores, they don’t think they’re capable.”

Several kids complained about the class time spent on test prep.

“My classes would use four to six weeks a year preparing for standardized tests,” said Aneurin Canham-Clyne (pictured with Morales), a junior at Wilbur Cross. “They’re only on rote memorization, they’re not about applying it to yourself or how it applies to the real world.”

New Haven State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield was among the participants. He urged the other attendees to think about what exactly should replace high-stakes testing.

“We need an actual alternative,” he said. “We can’t just say, ‘This is bad, let’s stop it.’” Without an alternative vision, he said, it would be impossible to convince the state government to move away from testing.

According to Werblow, a viable alternative already exists in the form of Naylor/CCSU Leadership Academy in Hartford, where students develop “assessment portfolios” of their own projects and present the portfolios at parent-teacher conferences. Werblow pointed to the 90 percent parent attendance rate as evidence that the model is working.

Within the room, there was wide support for a shift to “project-based learning,” in which students work in groups on long-term projects addressing real-world (or “authentic,” in Werblow’s words) problems.

A table near the door had stacks of form letters for parents who want to opt their kids out of either the current tests or the Common Core tests being piloted this year. The letters argue that “neither state nor federal law imposes ‘…any sanction on parents/guardians who refuse to allow their children to take Connecticut State standardized tests, or on their children.’” (The source of the quoted language is unclear; it doesn’t appear in the state law governing testing.)

Werblow suggested that a mass opt-out movement might be what it takes to move the state away from high-stakes testing.

“I think that will be what brings about the next wave in educational change, starting at the community level” he said.

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posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 10, 2014  10:52am

I don’t like the time wasted on standardized tests either, but the Common Core tests are not mere rote repetition; that is why they are so hard.  From the sample questions I have seen, they’ve gone out of their way to make real-world, critical-thinking/performance questions that are hard to study for.  The SBA’s strike me as more a test of ability than preparation, which may not be so desirable in other ways, e.g. evaluating teaching.

posted by: Bishop on February 10, 2014  11:07am

“Werblow pointed to the 90 percent parent attendance rate as evidence that the model is working.”

Because we all know that parent attendance is adequate evidence of student reading ability? That’s hardly research-based decision-making. Good to know CCSU and my tax dollars are going to fund people who don’t understand what real evidence is.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on February 10, 2014  11:16am

Well, the testing, from this account, is obviously not fostering actual learning.  But in terms of actually mastering some kind of content (e.g. history between the Puritans and the Industrial Revolution), I fail to see how “‘project-based learning,’ in which students work in groups on long-term projects addressing real-world (or ‘authentic,’ in Werblow’s words) problems” is a better alternative.  Sometimes you actually need to read the books and talk about them, and do research and stuff. 

Also, for many bright kids, working in groups is torture—not only does their personal learning style favor solitude and uninterrupted time for reading, researching and writing, but also, teenagers don’t have the mastery of power dynamics to spread the burdens equally.  One kid ends up doing all the work, or one kid’s failure to do the work brings down the whole project. 

Group projects to solve problems may be a realistic preparation for the world of work, which does tend to be based on this kind of tasks.  But the “learning” it fosters is mostly learning about how other people shirk responsibilities, or how hard it is to coordinate a committee, and how much time and effort gets wasted in the process. Substitute lessons in task dynamics and some spotty learning-by-discovery for lessons in test-taking ... and you still haven’t actually mastered any real CONTENT.

Geez.

posted by: New Haven Nuisance on February 10, 2014  12:08pm

I feel the “alternative vision” is obvious: one size fits all programs of any kind should be eliminated immediately. Whether they be reworked testing standards or across the board portfolio-based projects, there will never be one single idea from the top-down that will be effective in every school, for every teacher, or for every student.
The answer is to treat teachers as the professionals they are and give them the autonomy to craft their own individual teaching methods. Teaching is as much an art as it is a science and no one size fits all approach will ever fit all.

posted by: HewNaven on February 10, 2014  12:26pm

So let me see if I get this right. NHPS has two very big goals at the moment:

1. Get more kids to stay in school to graduate and then move on to college
2. Make school less interesting by adding more standardized testing (albeit in a better format than before)

My best teachers in high school (not NHPS) were the ones who had an idiosyncratic teaching style and knew their subject inside and out, not the ones who taught straight from the book (or straight from the test). Holder-Winfield is right that we need an alternative, we can’t just say no. The alternative is to attract more great teachers to the district and to continue building them from within. Its never going to be perfect, but if we concentrate on improving people instead of improving numbers its going to be a better strategy.

posted by: TheMadcap on February 10, 2014  12:48pm

@Jill

I agree. I have some problems with common core, but they have in fact tried to make the tests not only more applicable to the real world but require more critical thinking. He took flak for it some months ago when he said it, but the Secretary of Education I think was right. One problem with the tests is kids are all of a sudden not doing fantastic on them and now parents and some kids for that matter are mad their little Johnny and Susie are in fact not special snowflakes.

posted by: Bruce Crowder on February 11, 2014  1:28am

I loved the NHPS magnet school program…until my 5 year old started getting homework every night and graded tests each Friday. Now I am considering a change in school systems. What is the point of giving a Kindergartener a graded test? Grades mean nothing to a child of that age—they are for the benefit of the teacher and the school system, not the child. There are better ways to teach and to challenge a child.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on February 11, 2014  1:29pm

New Haven parents & community members: get educated on Common Core:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/01/18/everything-you-need-to-know-about-common-core-ravitch/

posted by: Bruce Crowder on February 11, 2014  4:09pm

I guess I never really finished my thoughts in my comment above. I don’t really have such a problem with the fundamental concept of the common core curriculum—fewer topics, taught more thoroughly. What worries me is that teachers lose control of what and how they teach.

I think the whole educational system is going through some growing pains and getting this right may take a while. I don’t think any of us have enough data yet to say that this is a success or failure. I like Holder-Winfield’s point. Don’t call for scrapping the system if you don’t have a better alternative.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on February 12, 2014  11:55am

Bruce Crowder says, “Don’t call for scrapping the system if you don’t have a better alternative.”

Actually, alternatives are being proposed and developed, and this was discussed at the meeting. Again, we parents need to do a much better job educating ourselves, especially given the demands that we are talking about making on our children. Here is a great resource to explore:

http://performanceassessment.org/

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on February 12, 2014  12:10pm

Take a look at (unsurprising) findings from Colorado:

“So, does this testing data, acquired at great expense in both money and class time, tell us which schools are doing their job and which are performing poorly? Not at all. Rather, what really jumps out of the data is the extremely strong relationship between school rank and student family income. This correlation is so strong that it is possible to predict the rank of the school in advance with fair accuracy just by usin a simple formula that multiples its percentage of low-income students by 4 and subtracts 20.
...
“In short, what we have managed to learn is that the children of doctors and lawyers do better on standardized tests than the children of day laborers and welfare recipients. This raises an interesting question: Why are we funding this program?”

http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_25071195/colorados-school-testers-flunk-themselves?source=rss_emailed

posted by: Bishop on February 12, 2014  8:51pm

@SteveOnAnderson

Ravitch is a noted anti-reform polemic. The other is a guest contributor to a newspaper. I can rattle off pro-reform information too! See?

http://nypost.com/2013/12/28/nys-proficiency-tests-should-demand-more-from-students-not-less/

Oh look!  Here’s more from Education Next!

http://educationnext.org/information-fuels-support-for-school-reform/

The point? It’s easy to rattle off website and pass them off as gospel. They’re not - they’re opinions…specifically the ones you want to believe. Want something more juicy? Consider the fact that the NEA (a union) supports an Ed Reform effort (Common Core):

http://neatoday.org/2013/10/16/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-common-core/

Or that the AFT supports Charter Schools:

https://www.aft.org/issues/schoolchoice/charters/

It’s not so simple, everyone. This isn’t a one-sided debate, but instead full of lots of pros and cons. Let’s not devolve into binary opposition but have a reasoned discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of testing.

posted by: Craig on February 13, 2014  9:06pm

I don’t think this is about having a friend who thinks they are not at a college level because they can code an app. This is about basic understanding of mathematics and the English language (reading, writing, and comprehension) for the 21st century. New Haven is behind the state average and families shouldn’t ‘opt out’ of something that will increase their child’s comprehension level. What about the schools that already have poor performance? http://bit.ly/1eTyIoI

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