Panelists debate the value of standardized testing in public schools

By ARPAN SAHOO | November 29, 2018

The nonprofit Teachers’ Democracy Project (TDP) hosted a panel and discussion on the efficiency of using testing data to judge school productivity on Monday. Participants discussed the school accountability movement, which seeks to hold schools liable for providing a good education for their students.

The panel featured Laura Weeldryer, chief program officer of the Everyone Graduates Center at Hopkins; Jessica Shiller, education advocate and Towson University professor; Teresa Jones, representative from the Office of Human Capital of Baltimore City Public Schools; and Jamal Jones, parent and Baltimore Algebra Project director. 

Weeldryer opened the panel discussion by covering the history of the accountability movement. She claimed that the movement started with the No Child Left Behind Act which requires states to give students standardized tests in reading and math in grades 3–8 and once in high school or risk losing federal funding.

“It was the first time there were grade-specific assessments required. You had to test kids in ELA and math in third, fifth and eighth grade. States had to come up with exams that would comply with federal mandates, and all those results were going to be published,” she said.

Weeldryer proceeded to discuss the problems with No Child Left Behind’s focus on using testing data to judge schools. She explained that because middle and upper-class white children often make up the majority of the student population, averaging test scores hid the lower scores of minority groups. 

“Instead of just looking at average test scores in a district or state, you had to look at the performance of sub-groups of students. Performance of students with disabilities, by race, by gender, by socioeconomic status. There are schools that do a great job of serving middle-class white kids, but not students of other groups,” she said.

Shiller praised the accountability movement’s shift towards understanding the importance of catering to different groups of students.

“We’ve been able to say that this isn’t working. We have numbers that justify that schools are not serving certain groups of students very well,” she said. 

However, Shiller explained that despite recognizing a need for looking at sub-groups of students, there were still inherent problems with the focus on test scores.

“Think about a classroom of 25, 30 kids. The teacher says, ‘Every Friday, there’ll be a test.’ [All] that you have to do to pass the class is pass those Friday tests. The student is going to do whatever he has to do to do well on that Friday test,” she said. 

She explained that teachers use this test-focused approach to accountability in order to improve their statistics, maintain their jobs and secure funding for their respective schools.

“It wasn’t about student learning anymore; it was about teachers wanting to keep their livelihood. The conversation was not about what can kids learn, what we hope for kids to learn or what we hope for them to do after they graduate,“ Shiller said. “Instead, the conversation is about how we can get them through and how we can do that with enough decent looking data that doesn’t make us look too bad.”

Weeldryer discussed the sanctions imposed upon schools by the government when the students are not performing well on these tests. According to Weeldryer, these sanctions can often have a negative impact on the community. 

“Under the accountability movement, schools often have sanctions. They have to get a partner, get all new teachers, get a new principal, get taken over by the state or even get shut down. 

In the past, those sanctions have happened without any sort of community input or even consideration of what the impact on the community would be,” Weeldryer said. 

In an interview with Rebecca Yenawine, executive director at TDP, she discussed the mission of Teachers’ Democracy Project, the organization that hosted the event. 

“We advocate to make change in Baltimore City Public Schools. So that puts us in a city-wide relationship with the city. We have teachers and parents from a variety of schools across the city who we work with and try to support as they do advocacy work,” she said.

She explained the impetus behind TDP’s decision to host the event. 

“Teachers don’t feel supported by their administrations, and one thing we’re interested in as a part of that work is thinking about how you can support teachers,“ Yenawine said. “If we’re testing children, is it deepening their learning? Is it the prep that happens and the process deepening their learning, or is taking away from that learning? I would argue that it doesn’t do enough to add to their educational experience.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Hope Burke, a former Baltimore County Public School (BCPS) teacher, discussed her experience working with other teachers and with schools.

“As a former 11th and 12th grade English teacher in Baltimore City, I know that our city’s teachers are some of the hardest working advocates for Baltimore’s young people. Due to a lack of resources and funding, teachers are often more than just teachers — they are social workers, counselors, mentors and family to their students,” Burke wrote. 

According to Burke, problems with BCPS do not stem from the teachers but rather the way in which the school is run. She also discussed ways by which the education system in Baltimore could be improved from the perspective of a student. 

“I know (based on what my youth shared with me when I was teaching) that they, more than anything, want to be considered equal and have what their peers in Baltimore County and around the country have — technology, better food options at lunch, working heat and air conditioning, advanced course options, stronger support for post-HS preparation, and to be academically and personally challenged,” she wrote.

Burke further critiqued the use of standardized testing in Maryland.

“I do not think that standardized testing is a fair reflection of the academic abilities of Baltimore City’s youth,” she wrote.

Burke added that she believes standardized testing can hinder students abilities to learn, because of the emphasis placed on rote memorization in preparation of these tests, rather than on being able to learn and explore in other ways. 

“Instead of being able to help youth authentically learn and explore curiosities and passions and demonstrate mastery in real-world scenarios, teachers are pushed into preparing students for a test that is not differentiated based on skill levels or learning differences,” she wrote.

Jae Choi contributed reporting.

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