by Carisa Kluver The Digital Media Diet April 26, 2013
Last night Jayne Clare from TeachersWithApps held their EdAppTalk on Facebook to discuss standardized testing in US schools for 2nd-11th graders, based on their recent post, “Isn’t it TIME to Stand Up Against Standardized Testing?” It made me realize it is also time for me share my concerns and why I would like to see test reform in our schools as soon as possible. I have come to the realization that it will require real protest from parents and will be opting my own child out of testing when he enters 2nd grade next year. While this is not a typical ‘digital media’ topic, it does impact everything happening in the world of education and apps.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ~ Nelson Mandela
I love data. I love collecting it, crunching it, trying to make meaning of it and especially hatching new plans of action in response to it. I flirted with the idea of being a statistics major (true confession) before studying Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. I loved Anthropology and feel like it permanently altered my way of looking at the world. I wanted to do more ‘pure research’ in the field, but after college, I spent two years doing volunteer work in Alaska and it ‘ruined’ me for going back into academic isolation ever again.
I wrote my favorite professor to say I was torn (having promised I was going to apply to Ph.D. programs), but felt I had to ‘act’ in the world, rather than study it with any hope of objectivity. Soon I was in Seattle, studying social work in a masters program at the University of Washington (UW), with an eye on community-based public health settings. I got my wish, right out of grad school and spent nearly a dozen years working in a variety of community and school settings with youth and families. All of the programs I worked in had one thing in common, though, beyond being non-profit social service programs – all were part of research projects where data was being collected and strict research protocols had to adhere to every step of the way. A lot of innovative studies are conducted in the Puget Sound region and I learned a lot about what it takes to run a meaningful research project. I ended my time in research work at UW doing data collection for a maternal and child health study that taught me even more about how data is managed and evaluated.
So when I say I am against standardized testing in our public schools, I do so from a background of loving the idea of testing, just hating the implementation in its current form. There are a lot of ways in which we could do meaningful studies with a fraction of the money we spend on current testing at the state level. But with existing testing mandates, we are locked into rigid testing in a way that goes against basic research standards. A healthy environment for real inquiry should be open to change if results stagnate or are not statistically significant, or if the impact of the project has unforeseen negative consequences on the subjects. For example, a basic bias is being created when schools become anxious and overly focused on the importance of students performing well on what is essentially a research survey. In any other setting, this would be a red flag, implicating poor research design.
These standardized tests are being created, implemented, and evaluated in a closed box in which only certain questions can be asked. This is true for a lot of social science research, but in this case, the stakes are much higher. The type of questions and way we ask them on standardized tests can only bring a limited set of answers; if done exceptionally well, at best, this kind of testing is guaranteed to illuminate only a fraction of what we are seeking to understand. We should be measuring a lot more aspects of student life, if we want to discover what makes schools, students or staff successful. By putting such a heavy emphasis on standardized testing (and spending so much money on such poorly structured research), we are essentially letting our entire public school system become a guinea pig for an experiment. I do not believe I consented to be in this study, nor do I want my child to be part of it. But public school testing in the US is a research study being conducted in our schools via ‘passive consent’ … you are part of it unless you actively choose to ‘opt out’. And in this case, most parents, even well-educated ones, are unlikely to know they have a legal right to opt out in most states. There is even a national movement on the web and Facebook, organizing parents and often simply informing them of their right to request that their children not participate in standardized testing. Sample letters and copies of the legal code for each state are also online, for those savvy with Google.
Honestly, I’m not sure if it will make much impact when I opt out my one child. I’m not advocating that everyone do this, but I do hope that anyone interested will find the information a bit easier to access after this post. It’s a decision, like so many as a parent, that we must make for our own family. For me, it really comes down to understanding the nature of these kinds of tests and how imperfect and culturally-bound they can be in ways that blind us to harm we may do to ourselves. The data collected is ‘slippery’, meaning it can be biased from a number of different sources. The way we ask questions can lead subjects to answer a certain way, the type of questions and setting can bias things, as well as things like feeling pressured to take the test, or anxiety because the results are so critical. Having curriculum designed over the years to teach to the test is also a huge problem over time. Mandating a certain kind of test may be one of the worst ways government can fund useful inquiry in the field of research. And testing is research.
It could be argued that the tests are not so terrible, in the context of everything happening in our educational system. I would not disagree, but the weight put on them is terribly out of balance. These tests are, essentially research studies involving ‘human subjects’, which is, by nature, prone to slipperiness. Many studies are biased in innocent ways, but by putting such a heavy weight on the value of the results, we may be looking for trouble. We cannot expect a test to solve the problems it was meant to simply study. You cannot test your way to ‘no child left behind’. You cannot ‘race to the top’ by pressuring schools to feel even more anxious about their survival than they already do. These are imperfect measurement tools, worthy of some value, but not remotely a comprehensive measure of what makes a school truly ‘great’. I just hope we can remember that human beings create tests and we are fallible. This means we should be careful about how much weight we put on any testing (and especially school testing) or we risk amplifying that bias in ways that will have lasting negative implications, as the results of the test are writ large in our national institutions.
For more information about the history of standardized testing and the ‘opt out’ movement:
Washington Post, April 14, 2013: ”Bush, Obama focus on standardized testing leads to ‘opt-out’ parents’ movement“
Huffington Post, February 20, 2013: “Standardized Test Boycotts, Protests Gain Momentum Around U.S.“