Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 26, 2004

Standardized-test worries

“Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” – Garrison Keillor

If you have school-age children, you know that it’s standardized testing season. You know because you’ve been hearing from school administrators about the importance of attendance and punctuality, of eating a nutritious breakfast and getting a good night’s sleep.

I have a vague, difficult-to-articulate, unsettled feeling about the increasing emphasis on standardized testing. For example, the special treatment that surrounds testing days bothers me. Most schools have snacks in classrooms to give kids energy and stress attendance, promptness, nutrition and rest. Why the emphasis during standardized testing? Shouldn’t we treat classroom instruction time this way?

I served as a volunteer proctor in a classroom at my daughter’s school last week. As I watched the students bent over their bubble sheets for a good chunk of Thursday and Friday morning, I wondered: Is this best use of scarce classroom time? These students will spend several mornings taking the CAT-6 and CST tests. What could they have learned in that time?

Did you know that you can opt out of standardized testing? Most parents don’t. I consider myself to be a reasonably informed parent, yet I learned about opting out of standardized tests just a few weeks ago. Schools do not encourage opting out. My children’s schools do not send parents notices that they can opt out of standardized testing, although they do for bilingual and sex education programs.

Why? Because under the federal No Child Left Behind act, if more than 5 percent of students opt out, the school won’t make its Adequate Yearly Progress goal, and will then be at risk for sanctions from the federal government.

Consequently, there’s lots of pressure on parents to make their kids take the standardized tests, and lots of pressure on teachers not to share the opt-out option with parents.

The federal government says the purpose of the opt-out sanctions, recently “eased” to use a three-year participation average, is to prevent schools from encouraging poor performers to opt out, thus raising their scores. California Secretary of Education Jack O’Connell is asking the feds to remove the penalty for schools with higher opt-out rates.

“I want to remove the penalty against schools where parents do not want their children to participate in state testing,” O’Connell said in a press release. “It concerns me that the Bush administration apparently does not support the rights of parents in this regard, because NCLB unfairly penalizes those schools where parents exempt their children from testing.”

The Bush administration is not expected to grant O’Connell’s request.

As a test proctor, I was asked to sign a form emphasizing the confidentiality of the test contents. How do parents evaluate top-secret tests? How do I determine if these tests are right for my child, or even if they are fair and accurate? Corporations make a lot of money devising and selling these tests that impact how federal tax dollars will be spent, yet I have no way of evaluating them. I understand the need to keep test contents under wraps to prevent cheating, but there seems to be no effort to balance my rights as a parent to make an informed decision on what’s best for my child.

I wish I had pat answers, ready solutions for my standardized test concerns. I haven’t exempted my kids from standardized testing, and probably won’t, if for no other reason than I don’t want to hurt my local schools.

Still, I’m concerned that we’re being forced to rely on tests that might not accurately gauge students or schools, and that we’re evaluating a remarkably narrow set of skills, usually just math and reading.

Of course we need to evaluate the progress our students are making and determine how well our schools are educating them. But if we’re not getting an accurate picture, the standardized test battery we’re currently using is a huge waste of time, energy and money.

There are other assessment options, including student portfolios and learning records, that might provide more accurate evaluations of student and school performance over a wider range of skills. But those who hold the federal purse strings don’t seem to want to consider them, and I wonder why.

Everyone wants good schools. But it seems to me that in the standardized test frenzy, we lose sight of an important fact: We can never make all of our children or all of our schools above average, no matter how much time they spend filling in bubbles.

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