The Tyranny of high-stakes testing

November 05, 2012     Published in the Cape Cod Times as My View
On the Cape and throughout the commonwealth, the public has been subjected, yet again, to the annual ritual of published MCAS results. As usual, the results have been received, alternately, with keening or with celebration. This school went up five points in math; that school’s eighth-graders went down six points.
Whatever supposed information the public is supposed to gain from this exercise is overwhelmed by the reality that high-stakes tests destroy teaching and learning. The scores tell nothing important about teachers, schools and students. The idea of a one-size-fits-all test has been rejected for centuries — first by the intuition of educators and, in recent years, by research from cognitive psychology, classroom observations and evaluations of tests.
We know that students learn at differing rates. Even though a group of students is the same age, they will be at different levels of development. In direct rejection of this scientific knowledge, we put all students of the same age into the same room and give them the same test. We even include students who have various learning disabilities as well as English language learners still working at mastering academic fluency in English. In disregard of these critical variables, we force all students through the same batteries of questions in a setting and manner reminiscent of the testing of new military recruits.
The system further compounds this destruction by using these highly problematic test scores to evaluate teachers, schools and districts. Were it not for the negative and harmful consequences of doing so, the entire process could be written off as farce.
The situation, however, is far from humorous: Students, teachers, administrators, districts and, by association, parents all suffer humiliations based on these absurdities. School funding may also suffer (except for funds to publishers who construct these tests). Students have the best part of their learning — the potential excitement of discovery and intellectual growth — drowned in the pool of supposedly objective testing.
Little is objective about the MCAS system. Selecting questions, determining grading scales and grading itself lie in the hands of particular people at particular times who function within particular pressures. Critical areas of study — arts, social sciences, physical education, vocational courses, many sciences — are allocated limited time and resources because these are redirected toward achieving ephemeral gains in verbal and math scores. Teachers are intimidated away from productive paths of learning — those invaluable teaching moments that make learning exciting — because of pressure to “get scores up.” Students find a significant part of their learning corrupted by this destructive nonsense.
Why do we continue with this abomination? The private and parochial schools pay no attention to the MCAS system. If it is such a valuable tool, why don’t these schools, which charge so much tuition, participate? Why do the admissions offices of private colleges care not a whit about MCAS scores? Why can students from private schools be admitted to state colleges without MCAS results while public school students must have passed MCAS?
High-stakes tests exist only because they were designed by people responsible for teaching and learning who were unable to understand the complexities of learning. Unable to translate these complexities into simple metrics, they reduced them to simple data points — a reductionist concoction upon which to make judgments.
At this time, only the objections and protests of parents, teachers and other community leaders will pressure the state Legislature to abandon this system and return schooling to the professionalism of teachers, the concern of parents and the excitement of students.
John Pierre Ameer of Yarmouthport is adjunct professor of education at Worcester State University.


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