Statement on standardized testing

Statement on standardized testing, prepared in response to movement Less Testing More Learning, Spring 2015

Patty Nolan, Cambridge School Committee candidate

There has been a lot of attention to standardized testing in the country, in Massachusetts, in Cambridge. I agree that we’re doing too much. And I agree that there is a place for standardized testing.

However, we know standardized tests do not raise achievement. And yet there is more attention to various student groups too often and tragically overlooked in the past. Many people attribute this attention to subgroups of students to having standardized tests. I am not persuaded that the correlation is direct or strong. Consider that the achievement gap narrowed in the 70s and 80s, when poverty programs changed the landscape. In the last 20 years, the gap has not budged. A report From the Black-White Achievement Gap, when progress Stopped, has lots of data confirming that finding. Correlation? Or coincidence? I honestly don’t know, but I do know we should know.

That being said, I believe there is a role for standardized tests, including a summative assessment of learning to assure students that they have the skills and knowledge to succeed – whether they go on to college or apprenticeship or employment. Most of the legislative attempts to address the testing issue do not eliminate standards or even all tests. They do question the type of test and the use of the test, especially when it seems to invade every grade every month. I believe we do a disservice to students if we don’t have standards that we can verify they have met, since future employers or other adult endeavors will assume a level of competency. Which means I support some hurdle every student must clear, with a test being the measure – as long as there is an alternative way for students for whom other ways of measuring learning is more appropriate, like the current portfolio assessment alternative provided by Massachusetts.

I agree with much of the educational leaders of this state when they testified – they talked about our state as a leader, about needing accountability, about the welcome attention to low income, SPED, students at risk. Honestly, unlike when I was in school, we do believe that all students can learn. The question is not that – it is whether the type and amount of standardized testing is necessary to get us to high standards for all students.

A few things to keep in mind – we all need to assess thoughtfully ways to build on our success. Our Massachusetts student results on internationally and nationally referenced tests –TIMSS, PISA & NAEP — are laudable. And Massachusetts has had MCAS for twenty years and has a highly unionized teaching staff. And in CPS, a study found that our African American and LowIncome students appear to be performing at about the level of Finland and Israel’s students. That suggests that we should re-frame the discussion and understand how we can improve, from our very solid base.

We’re not where we should be – especially for historically under-resourced students. But if our kids are performing at the top of an international scale, at least let’s stop telling them they are failing. When a student scores Needs Improvement or Warning, they hear “I am a failure”. We need to send the message that the tests are meant to measure what they have learned, not who they are. The recent focus on growth mindset is welcome and long overdue. We still have many teachers who subconsciously don’t really believe all kids can learn. Students need to hear consistently, and believe they can improve, that our schools are set up to help them learn, that is our job, the adults, to provide them with the support and tools they need to achieve the results we expect. It cannot be overemphasized enough: we have to make it clear that we truly do believe students can achieve – we must walk the walk of high expectations.

I am concerned about the impact of standardized tests on student social-emotional well-being. We know that expectations and messages matter – what message are we sending with our test results? We, the adults, need to keep students in mind when we assess and when we use the assessment results.

Why is Massachusetts a national leader in education? It is not our testing – it is the supports and programs to even the playing field and close the opportunity gap in hunger, social services, high expectations. Likely it is other elements of the Ed Reform bill and other elements of our state – we should be examining the evidence more carefully and thoughtfully – so that the solution fits the reality.

The discussion has to include the impact of testing AND most critically how to ensure that teachers are not doing TEST PREP (which does happen), or conveying to students that the test is a measure of the STUDENT himorherself. Instead the focus has to be on providing support to teachers, so they can teach, creatively, with joy and yes love. When that happens – engaged lessons in a classroom where every student feels valued and respected – by the time the high school test comes along, they’ll pass it. It all comes down to how educators are teaching our kids in the classroom.