A mid-school-year assessment (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills®) involving ~400,000 students across 41 states found reading skills have dropped dramatically in grades K–3 compared to a year ago. Kindergartners “on track” dropped from 55 to 37 percent and first-graders dropped 58 to 43 percent. Students needing “intensive intervention” in these groups increased 68 and 65 percent respectively compared to the prior year, according to a summary in Education Week.
No Child Left Behind, and now Every Student Succeeds Act “require” states to administer standardized state exams in reading and math to students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. In addition, student participation in the assessments must be above 95 percent.
During this pandemic where many students are not in school, and some are not able to connect for online learning, it will be impossible for most schools to reach the 95 percent minimum. These state assessments continue but the 95 percent participation expectation has been waived for now. States are still required to make public each school’s student performance, including a breakdown by income and race. However, white and affluent students are more likely to attend in-person and take the assessments. Therefore these results will still be much lower, but higher than the actual loss in learning.
Even before the pandemic, these assessments have been very damaging. Each state imposes one-size-fits all evaluations on all students at the selected grade levels and topics. These assessments previously had penalties associated with low performing schools, and continue to stigmatize schools and teachers. This led to a reduction in teaching through questioning and critical thinking, and an increase in rote memorization based on the prior year’s assessment questions. Art, music and other classes were dropped since their subjects were not evaluated. Schools doubled down on extra class time for test-prep.
Across two decades of this testing oppression, levels of critical thinking in U.S. students plummeted. Meanwhile, scores on state assessments have gradually gone up, a confirmation of teachers’ ability to teach-to-the-test. But the state assessments are fact-laden achievement tests. At the same time, scores on the nationwide aptitude tests (ACT, SAT and NAEP) have gone down. Teaching-to-the-test does not work for aptitude tests that measure ability to address new material, pose questions and think critically.
Teachers in many foreign countries are accustomed to teaching to achievement tests such as the GCSE in the British Commonwealth countries and the gao kao and related end-of-high school tests in China and other Asian countries. Many of those countries are realizing that they must move away from memorization of facts and toward the classroom questioning and critical thinking that was previously more common in American schools. The American teacher who formerly had the leeway to customize teaching for rural or urban students and decide what, how and when to teach concepts within the defines of the subject lost that professional responsibility under NCLB and it will not return as long as external assessments drive teaching-to-the-test.
Education schools are likewise churning out teachers as assembly-line workers attempting to produce a uniform final product. Many education schools have eliminated the tests and measurements class that trained teachers to write and modify their own tests. The test companies will do that now, they assert.
But students are unique in the talents they bring and the future they seek. Teachers should be able to utilize their own in-class testing to produce unique students.
Many parents recognize the oppression of one-size-fits-all tests and have chosen to opt their child out of these spring assessments—sometimes as many as half of students in Long Island, New York. The Every Student Succeeds Act authorizes states to allow parents to opt their child out of these supposedly required assessments. The FairTest website provides online resources for parents with questions and notes that Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, North Dakota, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin have specific laws allowing opt out. And opt out is likewise legal in the remaining states.
To end this teach-to-the-test tyranny, now is the time to opt your child out of external assessments and help teachers regain their professional teaching of unique students with unique strengths.