The High Cost of High Stakes Standardized Testing
(Spoiler Alert! It Hurts Students with Disadvantages the Most!)
I have a dear friend who values my input on matters in his personal life, then becomes flushed with gratitude after I offer meager scraps of wisdom rooted in experience, which then prompts him to inquire as to how he could ever repay my acts of friendship. I have to remind him that people are not commodities and that not every interaction requires a cost and benefit analysis or exchange. He’s a financial analyst in the healthcare industry, so this fact is not always as evident to him as it may be to someone who has spent 17 years in education, and even longer as a parent. Apparently this tidbit of information that I shared with my friend has not been obvious to those formulating education policy either. If students were not viewed as profit potential, or as indistinguishable data, then the research that conclusively demonstrates that 80% of a student’s academic performance is linked to factors beyond school walls such as environment, family, health, and socioeconomic status would actually be utilized to implement effective societal and educational reform. Doing something productive with regard to the issues that impact a student’s educational advantages or disadvantages, would be much more beneficial than adding more lard to the already obese test company profits. More tests and pseudo accountability are not going to address a single one of the family or societal factors currently affecting student academic performance.
In order to provide a more comprehensive portrayal of what our country is now spending on testing, the American Federation of Teachers published a study in 2013 of two mid-size urban districts with the pseudonyms “Midwestern School District” and “Eastern School District.” The costs of testing ranged from $200-$1100 per student based on the grade level of the student. Hours spent on testing and test preparation ranged from 65-165 hours across the two districts based on grade level, as well.
What has been lost as a result of testing absorbing dollars and time? Physical education, the arts, and recess have been reduced or eliminated, especially in schools serving underprivileged or special needs students because the curriculum becomes hyper focused on trying to cram test knowledge into students who arrive grade levels behind their middle and upper class peers. Countries with the highest performing students have an approach to education that is exactly the opposite of what we are doing in the United States because there is a bountiful amount of research that reveals children are better students if they have physical activity, exposure to the arts, and when their most basic needs are being met.
In order to maximize academic opportunities, students need to be well rested, well fed, feel safe, and have stability in their lives. Unfortunately, for the first time in fifty years, over half of the children in our public schools meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch, which means they are from low income households that fall within federal poverty guidelines. Educators have always known that it is harder to engage hungry students in learning, and researchers have had evidence for over a decade that food insecurity impairs reading and math development in children. Can we use high stakes standardized tests to feed these hungry children who come from homes with food insecurity? Can we use high stakes standardized tests to eradicate poverty, violence, police mistrust, or feelings of hopelessness? Will high stakes testing assist our students suffering from a lack of exposure to early childhood literacy development or improve the social skills of a generation growing up dependent on electronics? Have high stakes standardized tests and promises of merit pay inspired our brightest high school graduates to flood the education colleges with admissions applications, or assisted at all with retaining the 40-50% of teachers who enter the profession then leave within five years? Are current educators pleading for positions in “low performing” schools to serve students who possess performance potential not yet reached, where they need additional resources and the best educators the most? There is one answer to all of those questions: NO.
Worse yet, high stakes standardized testing has negatively impacted students of color, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic environments, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. I have witnessed and possess evidence of schools removing children from their enrollment lists because a student does not have a history of performing well on tests. I have also seen schools retain students on their rosters because there is a potential for the student to perform well on a high stakes standardized test, even if the student requires accommodations and services that cannot be provided by that specific school. I have serviced students that have become entangled in the school to prison pipeline partly because they are viewed as liabilities that may drag down building test scores. The focus on what is best for students is lost when schools and their staffs are forced to chase chimerical numbers that will determine the effectiveness of their school and possibly their salaries.
The idea of merit pay for educators is a concept fraught with illogical fallacies, not surprisingly concocted by capitalists hoping to profit off of children under the guise of education reform. These capitalists also seem to have convinced politicians to support nonsensical policies, or they have enough discretionary funds to ensure that research and evidence play no role in decision making when it is time to produce or enforce education legislation. I am not even going to waste time inserting a link here about the lack of correlation between improved instruction, student learning, and merit pay. Could anyone who enters the teaching profession possibly be monetarily motivated by an average starting salary of a little over $36,000 per year? Individuals do not enter education to build tangible wealth, but we are not the martyrs that we were once historically portrayed as either. As professionals with degrees and advanced educations, we deserve salaries that are commensurate with our skills and knowledge. We enter the profession consciously sacrificing material reward for the personal fulfillment that accompanies teaching. However, we also have families that we love and that rely on us for their support. If a consistent salary is contingent in any way on high stakes standardized test scores that actually reflect a child’s upbringing rather than the effectiveness of the teacher, how could any individual choose to risk their livelihood and the ability to support their family in order to work at a school with students who have challenges and are predicted to perform poorly on standardized tests? This leaves students who need the best educators the most at risk for a continued pattern of teacher attrition and high staff turnover rates, which exacerbates the struggles that already exist. High stakes standardized testing contributes to the perpetuation of educational inequities entrenched in high poverty areas. They do nothing resolve them.
Due to the erroneous and morally egregious high stakes associated with standardized testing such as the ability to graduate from high school, grade retention, or linking teacher evaluations to scores, we have punished the most vulnerable members of our society. How did our country arrive at a point at which OUR CHILDREN could be viewed as potential liabilities? Stakeholders may need to be reminded that we are judged by how we treat our weakest and most powerless citizens. I have great hope for the future if education reform is intelligently designed and research based. However, the prospect of generations yet to come examining our current educational structure should provoke tremendous trepidation among those who helped create this quandary.
In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren stated with regard to Brown v. Board of Education “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms.” High stakes standardized testing has completely failed to create equal terms. Instead it has intensified educational disparities. It is unfathomable that a statement made sixty-plus years ago concerning school segregation, is still so completely relevant in 2015.