Sunday, January 08, 2012

High Stakes Testing: A Personal History

With the latest international testing results coming out, the eyes of the world have turned in admiration to Finland as it continues its dominance in educational standings. While many review the results and strategize what parts of the unique education system might be adapted to improve things here at home, others are more interested in parsing words, sharpening the axes they grind in town meetings and union halls. The golden chalice for many of this type is the lack of high stakes testing in Finland.

Since the time that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law, it’s become a given for many teachers that high stakes testing sprang up spontaneously from the ether solely to torment hard-working teachers. For youngsters in the classroom now, it’s an easy sell, if the teachers try to make it. Most of them have never been in a school system without some kind of painful test regimen. A look back reveals a far different chain of cause and effect.

Growing up in the sixties and seventies as I did, I saw a lot of changes in the education system. Forced integration came to our town when I was in sixth grade. Affirmative action, in the form of racial preferences, was close behind. Into tenth grade, there was no mandatory graduation testing that I recall in my area, and only one required course, Americanism vs. Communism.

Late that year, things began to happen. I seem to recall a large number of news stories addressing the issue of “Functional Literacy.” People were graduating high from high school without the skills of reading or basic math. Estimates ran as high as ten percent for adults that could read nothing at all, and twenty percent that read so poorly they were virtually unemployable.

In 1978, I was part of the first class in my school to take the Florida Functional Literacy Test. I don’t remember many of the details. There was some vocabulary, basic math. I took it, passed it, and forgot it.

The test would be described in today’s terms as a “high stakes” test. Those who could not pass it were to be issued a certificate of attendance in lieu of a high school diploma. The purpose of the test, however, was diagnostic, not punitive. Those failing the first attempt would be shifted from their regular English requirement to a class that emphasized basic skills in math and reading. It was the sort of thing that could never be done today in most places, parents and teachers scared to death about the self-esteem of their precious little ones. As if it was possible to maintain self-esteem when you can neither read nor do basic sums…

There were at least two more opportunities for the students to retake the test later in the year and pass after sufficient progress. Most people did pass. A few did not. And that’s the first time that I recall the education system completely abandon its responsibility on a large scale. The requirement for passing the test for a diploma was cancelled. All students were graduated on the basis of their course work.

There were all kinds of arguments about whether or not cancelling the requirement was the correct thing to do, even as the arguments persist today. One fact that could not be argued against, however, was that the school system had lost its credibility as professional educators. It was apparent to all, not least to the children, that political considerations were now more important than the teaching of children.

Testing continued to expand, but the diagnostic focus shifted. Emphasis moved away from how best to improve children’s learning to blaming those who appeared to do better. Tests where minorities scored lower were labeled racist, never addressing whether the tests actually measured skills vital to the child’s success. Gender differences were declared proof of discrimination. And through all of this, school districts continued to develop more elaborate tests only to grant waivers in many cases when the inconvenient results appeared.

I do not blame teachers solely for the loss in credibility. They were under incredible pressure in many cases by parents and administrators to declare that children were succeeding, regardless of how true it might have been. I do blame them for their part in resisting any type of accountability measures that would have allowed the identification and firing of incompetents, for letting the professional standards drop so low that our schools of education are the last refuge of the underperforming college student. And I blame them for protecting themselves above the children by establishing a system of unions that makes it virtually impossible for millions of children to escape failing schools.

I never remember taking a course where the instructor “taught to the test.” It wasn’t needed. They taught the curriculum. Most passed. Some failed. While inconvenient, failure was also an opportunity. It was a chance to shift into courses that were appropriate. Far from being a pit of failure, vocational training was a program where many that did not have the desire or aptitude for college to succeed in school and life.

High stakes testing was never the cause of the problems in education. It is the result of years of problems that should have been addressed, but were not, or were not addressed adequately. The test results are the symptom. Parents and teachers across the nation are aware of the problem. The question is whether or not the nation will summon the dedication to solve it.

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