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The standardized testing dilemma

Chris Fitzsimon

One of the most interesting parts of the recent House budget debate wasn’t about the budget at all. It was about the state’s standardized testing policy in public schools.

Republican Bryan Holloway, a substitute teacher, convinced his colleagues to abolish end-of-course tests in history, civics and physical science. A handful of Democrats joined with House Republicans to end the tests and nobody really defended them.

Opponents of Holloway’s budget amendment said they agreed with his frustration with all the standardized tests now administered, but thought the House budget debate was not the proper place to make any changes.

Editorialists and pundits have generally agreed, some pointing to the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Testing and Accountability established three years ago as evidence that needed changes are underway and deserve more consideration than a few minutes of discussion on the House floor.

That makes sense, but underestimates the backlash against the standardized testing craze that began in the late 1990s and reached its peak with the passage of No Child Left Behind, which added new tests and sanctions on top of the state’s program.

Teachers and education advocates have long criticized basing everything from teacher pay to student promotions to the way schools are organized and funded on a test score.

The testing commission’s 2008 report found that the state’s standardized-testing regime, called the ABCs of education, did not ensure that students are ready for college or the job market and that too much time was spent on standardized tests without useful feedback that teachers could use to help students.

Other findings were that the testing regime didn’t improve high school graduation rates or reduce the remediation needed when students enter a university or community college.

That’s quite an indictment of a standardized-testing program that began with much fanfare in 1995 as part of an effort to create more accountability for public schools. At its inception, the ABCs program was designed to use standardized tests to identify students who were struggling and provide additional services to help those students catch up.

Those services were never adequately funded and plans to use the tests as a condition for student promotion were never fully implemented. The tests have been changed repeatedly over the years, the passing scores adjusted and the difficulty manipulated.

More tests were added as part of the ABCs. Then came No Child Left Behind, prompting more protests from parents and teachers, who said that testing and preparing for tests was overwhelming classroom instruction.

Just a few years ago, the criticism of standardized tests was brushed aside by many Republicans as whining by teachers who didn’t want to be held accountable for their performance.

Now Rep. Holloway says that the state should rely on teachers to assess students, not a standardized test. Judging by their votes, Holloway’s Republican colleagues appear to agree.

State education officials weren’t happy about the House vote, pointing out that the tests are needed to see how students are doing and to compare performance across the state. And that gets to the heart of the testing debate.

The issue isn’t the tests themselves, but how they are used. When parents, students and teachers are told that everything rides on a handful of test scores, then the tests become the focus of the school year, not learning.

Students are taught not only what’s on the test, but how to take a test. Pre-test pep rallies are held to make sure students know what is at stake. Everything comes down to that one number, and education suffers.

That doesn’t mean all standardized tests should be abolished. It doesn’t even mean the ones that Holloway doesn’t like should end. It means that tests should be used as just one of many ways to evaluate students, to find out who needs extra help and to help understand what is working and what is not in the classroom.

There’s good news in all this – that the standardized testing mania has subsided. It is a reminder that no magic bullet exists to improve public education. There are no shortcuts.

Instead, it takes a wide range of approaches that must include sustained and long-term investments in the schools and the teachers and, most importantly, in the students to turn things around.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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