Sunday, August 4, 2013

Runaway Train!

by Christine A Pierz

Standardized testing has become a runaway train. What once served as a tool for schools to measure Student's progress has become the be all and end all of the educational world.

Now we want to use these "tools" to decide whether or not a child should be promoted to the next grade, how much funding school deserves, how well a teacher teaches, and whether or not a principal is effective.

I remember taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) when I was in elementary school. We took them at the very end of the school year. There was no review, no special preparation for them. We just took the test. There was no pressure. I even remember them being fun. Now, testing has become more involved and complicated.

When I started teaching in the New York City public schools back in 1996, there were the "citywides", taken by Students in Grade Three and up. There was a test for Reading and a test for Mathematics.

The tests consisted of multiple choice questions. Students were told to take the tests seriously. Preparation began about a month prior to the tests. Scores were a percentage, the perfect score being 100%.

These scores would likely decide whether or not Students would be placed in the "top" class or "bottom" class, as children were "tracked" according to ability, but their scores were not the main factor as to whether they were promoted to the next grade.

The following year, New York City introduced the PAL (Performance Assessment in Language Arts). They were preparing Students for the testing revolution. This test was in addition to the Citywide Reading test. It was given to Grade Four Students. This was a two-day affair.

Day One involved reading a story, filling out a graphic organizer, and writing a response to a comprehension question.

Day Two involved listening to a story read aloud by the Teacher, taking notes on the story, and writing a response to a comprehension question based on that story.

Then there was a "Linking Question" asking Students to draw comparisons between the two stories. Students were given to separate grades; one for content and one for mechanics (grammar).

The powers that be liked the assessment so much, that they created the E-PAL (Early Performance Assessment in Language Arts).

The E-PAL was (and still is) administered to Students in Grades Two and Three. It has the same structure as the PAL, with grade-level appropriate stories. The PAL and E-PAL are scored by teachers according to a rubric (a set of pre-determined criteria).

Scores for the performance assessments range from 1 to 4 (4 being the highest) for content, and 1 to 3 (3 being the highest) for mechanics. We prepared for these assessments by taking practice tests a few weeks prior to the exam.

By 2006, citywide exams were a combination of the old multiple choice test and the performance assessment, including a section testing Student's knowledge of grammar rules.

The Mathematics exam had an overhaul as well, including questions where Students not only had to solve problems, but show all their work, and explain how they arrived at their answers. Students who did not score a 2 or better on either test would be "invited" to go to Summer School.

At the end of the summer session, Students were given an opportunity to take another test. If they scored 2 or better on the test, they would be allowed to move on to the next grade. If not, they were retained.

Preparation was, in a word, intense. I taught Third Grade in the 2006-2007 school year. I taught Reading and Writing with a little bit of grammar thrown in (ELA), Mathematics, and Social Studies.

Science was left up to the Science Cluster (or "Special Teacher"). Periodic Interim Assessments in ELA and Math were administered.

However, after Thanksgiving Break, my classroom was transformed into a test prep center. It was all Reading all the time. I had three different books for ELA Test prep. Take out a Mathematics book? God forbid!

After Christmas Break, the countdown to the test was posted on the chalkboard. Practice exams were administered and reviewed at least once per day.

After the ELA exam had come and gone, it was time for Math. We switched to all Math all the time. Again, I had three different types of materials for Mathematics test preparation. Reading? ELA? Been there. Done that.

Now it was Pre-March, Post-March. "Show your work!" became our mantra. After the tests were over, it was time to teach again.

The year was far from over, yet my Student's fate had already been sealed. We were teaching to the test, teaching them how to take a test; but were we teaching them what they needed to know?

Then there is the issue of what the test is actually measuring. I remembered telling a parent that his daughter could not read a First-Grade level book. The girl was in Third Grade for the second time! I expressed my concern that she would not pass the tests; her promotion to Fourth Grade was in doubt.

Didn't I look silly when she scored a 3; meets standards! Word got out that the tests were not actually measuring progress for two grade levels below, so they made the test harder. They made a big deal of it too.

A true standardized test would be a tool that accurately reflected progress. There are so many other ways we can measure Student progress. What happened to portfolios and authentic assessment? Why do we put so much emphasis on something that is inaccurate or flawed?

High Stakes Testing is something that Big Business created to appease those who think the educational system is failing the children. We need to stop this "runaway train" before it derails.

Christine Pierz is a New York State certified Teacher. She has had several articles about educational issues published by EzineArticles.

Christine has 15 years of experience teaching, mainly in urban schools. To learn more about Christine, please view her personal web site at

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