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High Stakes Testing 1 High Stakes Testing: Is it worth the gamble? Jennifer D. Smith Prescott College High Stakes Testing 2 High Stakes Testing: Is it worth the gamble? Recently there has been a push for high stakes testing in our public education system. The rationale for such testing is that if we raise our standards and hold schools and teachers accountable then our students will end up performing better educationally. Ideally this education reform plan was intended to “provide every boy and girl in America with a high-quality education—regardless of his or her income, ability or background” (Paige, 2002). However worthy and well intentioned this goal may be, research has found that high stakes testing may not be the solution. It may, in fact, be contributing to the problem. Teachers have found themselves curtailing their curriculum to assure that the required standards have been met, and have found that there is little or no time left for any of the remaining valuable, life skills instruction. The consensus is unanimous that something must be done to bridge the gap between our high achieving students and those who are not meeting the mark (the majority of which have proven to be minority students and students who come from low-income homes). Innovative teaching practices which balance rote learning and the learning of higher-order thinking skills, as well as a multicultural curriculum could do more to reach those populations and provide all students with the tools they need to be successful in their educations and in their lives. Recently an in-depth, scholarly study was conducted on 18 states to see how the high-stakes testing had affected student learning (Amrein, 2002). This study did not use the scores from the actual high-stakes tests in order to determine student learning, but rather they used the results from the ACT, SAT, NAEP and AP tests because they High Stakes Testing 3 covered the same domain as the state’s high-stakes tests and would therefore be useful in making a comparison of data (p.1). The “uncertainty principle” was what the researchers used to interpret the data. This principle states “The more important that any quantitative social indicator becomes in social decision-making, the more likely it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor” (p. 2). The evidence gathered in this study showed that the tests effect on student learning either remained status quo, or went down in schools that had been instituting the high-stakes testing policies (p. 2). The researchers concluded: Analyses of these data reveal that if the intended goal of high-stakes testing policy is to increase student learning, then that policy is not working. While a state’s high-stakes test may show increased scores, there is little support in these data that such increases are anything but the result of test preparation and/or the exclusion of students from the testing process. These distortions, we argue, are predicted by the uncertainty principle. The success of a high-stakes testing policy is whether it affects student learning, not whether it can increase student scores on a particular test. If student learning is not affected the validity of a state’s test is in question (p. 2). The important thing to recognize is the unintended consequences that result from implementing a high-stakes testing policy such as the narrowing of the curriculum so that teachers can teach to the test, the increase in drop-out rates, and the higher rate of holding students back a grade because of “poor performance” on the tests (p. 11). Such unintended consequences have a huge impact on poor and minority students in particular. High Stakes Testing 4 Consider Arizona’s AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) for example. In 1999, Ninety-seven percent of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans failed the math section of the AIMS test (p. 11). The same problem occurred in Texas in 1997 where one sophomore out of every two who were either African American, Mexican American, or economically disadvantaged were able to pass all the sections of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) (p. 12). In both of these instances, the European American students passed with a higher success rate. When failures such as these are attached to a penalty for poor performance, the chasm between students with varying backgrounds widens and the pressures on these students and their teachers increase. A possible reason for this discrepancy is the fact that teachers are being forced to narrow their teaching strategies in order to cram their students full of the facts they need to know in order to be ready for the test. When teachers are so preoccupied with teaching to the test, it is impossible to make the time to adapt lessons to enhance learning for their multicultural students. Research has proven that a teacher must consider the diverse backgrounds of each of their students and plan to implement teaching techniques that will be both sensitive and inclusive of the various cultures each student represents. In the book entitled Teaching American Indian students, the author, Jon Reyhner (1992) stated that “Good teaching requires that teachers understand and respect the individuality of all children. Neither appreciation nor respect are possible without knowing the children’s cultural and environmental backgrounds” (p. 14). High Stakes Testing 5 There are many social influences that shape a student’s perceptions and learning styles. For example, research indicates that many of the Native American populations from the Southwestern United States are predominantly visual learners (p.84). This population would be more inclined to study a problem out rather than to jump right in and take a risk (p. 83). These tendencies stem from the social mores that exist in their culture where one would be ridiculed if they took a risk and failed. An observant teacher who recognizes such tendencies, realizes from where they stem, and does not feel restricted by the confines of teaching to the standards, would carry out teaching strategies that would first “assess students’ preferred ways of learning and the way(s) in which student behaviors change from situation to situation” (p. 93). Next that teacher would “plan learning experiences that address conceptual goals or skills or other objectives that incorporate the students’ preferred way of learning using teaching methods, incentives, materials, and situations that are planned according to student preferences” (p. 93). Later, as the year goes on the teacher will “plan and implement student participation in learning experiences that require behaviors the student has previously avoided” (p. 93). These types of behaviors would only be introduced one at a time, gradually, and in the midst of other familiar, preferred activities so that the student could continue to feel success. To have the teachers of our nation be as responsive to students’ needs as this would be ideal. However, with the push for high-stakes testing, a teacher’s ability to adapt their lessons to suit the needs of their multicultural students is diminished. When teachers are preoccupied with standardized achievement scores, their focus might not High Stakes Testing 6 lend itself to making such beneficial adaptations crucial to student success. There are also many vital subjects such as social skills, environmental awareness, and cultural competence that need to be taught in our schools if we expect our students to ever be exposed to their concepts and practices, but if teachers are preoccupied with teaching to the standards these subjects will be crowded out of their curriculum. In the book titled The educated child: a parent’s guide from preschool through eighth grade, Bennett et al. (1999) assert that children must be taught such personal traits as “responsibility, self-discipline, and perseverance” in order to achieve their greatest potential in school (p. 67). The authors conducted a study of many teachers and schools and recorded that the majority of teachers told them much of their class time is spent “raising children”. Due to shortcomings in the home, teachers are finding themselves teaching hygiene, manners, rudimentary respect to the rights and property of others, counseling children of divorce, teaching the facts of life, teaching conflict resolution, etc… all the while that they are expected to be teaching the fundamentals of reading, writing, multiplying and dividing (p.16). It is the stand of the authors that since students only spend 10% of their life from birth to age 18 in school, it is not enough time to teach both basic socialization and basic academics within the school setting; therefore, it is up to parents to bring up their children with a set of moral values that will prepare them to meet their education with enthusiasm and the skills necessary to succeed (p. 17). It is true that a teacher’s time in a student’s life is limited, and that the teacher’s primary responsibility lies with the teaching of academics; however, it is equally true that if success is to be found in the school both for the teachers and for the students, some High Stakes Testing 7 social skills are going to have to be taught within the school because in today’s homes more often than not, these values are not being taught. In their book entitled How to talk so kids can learn at home and at school, Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish, Lisa Nyberg, and Rosalyn Anstine Templeton (1995) explained that we have an “additional responsibility to today’s generation of children” (p.16). They further explained that: Never before have so many young people been exposed to so many images of casual cruelty. Never before have they witnessed so many vivid demonstrations of problems being solved by beatings or bullets or bombs. Never before has there been such an urgent need to provide our children with a living model of how differences can be resolved with honest and respectful communication. That’s the best protection we can give them against their own violent impulses. When the inevitable moments of frustration and rage occur, instead of reaching for a weapon, they can reach for the words they’ve heard from the important people in their lives. (pp. 16-17) It is clear that we are not dealing with an ideal world. The audience for Bennett et al’s book (1999) are parents who actually are taking an active role in their child’s education and therefore would benefit from the advice to train their children in social values. The rest of the children of the world may not be so lucky as to have parents that are as involved in their educations. Therefore, it would be more beneficial to our nation if teachers would assume that role of social trainers as well as academic trainers if all children are to be given the opportunity to learn the social values and skills necessary to be successful in school and ultimately in life. High Stakes Testing 8 Along with social training, the youth of our nation have a need to be taught cultural competence. Cultural competence is “the ability to recognize cultural differences, rather than judging another culture by the norms of your own” (Agyeman, 2001, p. 1). A teacher can express through word and deed kindness and respect for students of all backgrounds. Teachers can also take time to teach students about various cultural norms and how they shape the beliefs of the people who are raised within those cultures. It is worthwhile not only to teach students about various cultures, but it is equally as important to encourage students to learn about their own heritage and to learn how their beliefs are influenced by their culture. “Being culturally competent does not mean giving up your own values” (p.1). When students can recognize who they are and where their beliefs stem from, they can then begin to branch out and explore various cultures and recognize there is more than one way to view things. They will have the opportunity to realize there is value found in all cultures. The main goal of a cultural competence curriculum is “to promote cultural awareness and sensitivity among all students, which will lead to the appreciation of and respect for one’s own and others’ cultures” (Reyhner, 1992, p.20). There are learning theories in the educational world that lend themselves to effective instruction practices that, if proactively combined, can satisfy both the need to meet the academic standards as well as the need to meet the social and emotional needs of our students. In an article entitled: “Alternatives in education: An exploration of learner-centered, progressive, and holistic education”, R.A. Martin, Ph.D. (2002) High Stakes Testing 9 discussed four orientations of education which she termed “transmission”, “transaction”, “self-direction”, and “transformation”. For the purposes of this paper, the first two orientations are of particular interest. Within the transmission orientation of education, education is thought of as “the process of teachers transmitting knowledge, beliefs, values that are accepted by society. Students are the recipients of information, and learning is the process of memorizing information or acquiring skills” (p. 13). This orientation is related to the traditional method of teaching and learning we are most familiar with. On the other hand, the transaction orientation asserts that “education is the process of experimental problem solving, in which teachers help students learn the scientific method through application. Whereas the teachers were seen as the authority in the transmission approach, in this approach they are guides who encourage students in dialoguing, questioning, and engaging in thoughtful reflection” (p. 13) A careful consideration of both these orientations of education would show that both have merit and each has a purpose. As Bennett et al. (1999) expressed, “there is a solid core of fundamental knowledge that does not change much from year to year or even generation to generation” (p. 589). If it is this type of knowledge that a teacher is trying to convey, they are leaning towards the “transmission" orientation where they are trying to “transmit” the information to their students. Conversely, more progressive teachers lean towards the “transaction” orientation where students “learn how to learn” (p. 593). These students are given opportunities to formulate questions about the world around them and then do research and experiment to find the answers essentially on their own. Some teachers lean more heavily towards one orientation than the other. If your High Stakes Testing 10 main concern is to teach to the standardized tests, then the transmission orientation would be your focus. If you are concerned more with students learning how to acquire knowledge and skills, then the transaction orientation would be your main focus. With the push for accountability and high stakes testing, the transmission orientation seems to be the only option if teachers and schools want to make the grade. There are some who are strongly opposed to this approach to learning. Opponents have noted: Today, government officials, along with leaders of corporations, foundations, universities, and other institutions, determine what all students “need” to know, and this becomes educational policy, expressed in standards, state-mandated textbooks, high stakes testing and relentless control over teaching and learning. (Martin, 2002, p. 13) In an article expressing his opposition to the newly mandated “tougher standards”, Alfie Kohn (2003) suggests that teachers, “should do what is necessary to prepare students for the tests—and then get back to the real learning” (p. 1). He asserts that when teachers are forced to “teach to the test” their curriculum is prescribed, and there is not a whole lot of room left for creativity in teaching and learning. Kohn goes on to say that “’accountability’ usually turns out to be a code for tighter control over what happens in classrooms by people who are not in classrooms—and it has approximately the same effect on learning that a noose has on breathing” (p. 3). One teaching strategy that would lend itself to the transaction orientation has been termed as “discovery learning”. Reyhner (1992) asserted that with discovery learning High Stakes Testing 11 “both students and teachers have acknowledged contributions to make what is learned. No one comes with nothing; everyone comes to the classroom with personal, social, and cultural-linguistic resources from which others can benefit” (p. 127). Such a learning environment would be one where “learning is collaborative and interactive; the teacher’s role is not to transmit a predetermined body of knowledge, but to ensure that the learning environment supports students in giving meaning to their experiences and in communicating those meanings to others.” Bennett et al. cautioned that behind the “fine-sounding phrase [discovery learning] hides a bushel of mischief” (1999, p. 592). He continued: This view of education is seductive. It sounds so natural, energetic and ambitious. Taken in moderation, it makes sense. As we all know the lessons we figure out for ourselves tend to sink in deepest and stick with us longest. It is also true that there are some topics, subjects, and assignments where discovery learning is important. A lab experiment in science, for example, is a form of discovery learning. So is making a map of the school grounds, and collecting and classifying leaves. A good education obviously includes such activities… But discovery learning has real limitations in practice when schools try to turn it into the main way children learn academic lessons. (p. 592) We can learn from this that although discovery learning has its positive applications in teaching such things as science and geography, and even, as we have previously High Stakes Testing 12 discussed, the teaching of students with multicultural backgrounds, it is not a suitable teaching style for every subject to be taught. Supporters of the heightened standards and accountability argue that there is nothing wrong with teaching the core curriculum. They propose that there is a core curriculum of knowledge that every child should learn by certain bench marks. They do not argue that higher level thinking is unimportant. Instead, they assert, (and research by cognitive psychologists confirms) that: Highly skilled intellectual competence comes after, not before, you know a lot of “mere facts”. In order to be a critical, independent thinker, in order to firm up those higher-order thinking skills so beloved of education experts, you need a considerable amount of knowledge. The more you know, the better you’re able to learn. For example, students grasp the meaning of what they’re reading much better if they already have some background knowledge to apply to that material. (Bennett, p. 589) What if you realize that both orientations are equally important for a child’s education? If you are like many progressive teachers today who realize that the recent standardized testing policies are here to stay, at least for now, then you also realize that a union of the two orientations must be achieved to be sure that nothing important is left out of our students’ educations. There is so much more than the basic core knowledge that our students need to learn while in school that it would do our nation a disservice to overlook these important curriculum in the name of higher standards in education. If our High Stakes Testing 13 attention turns from all that is important in education to teaching just what we need to know to be successful on a “high-stakes” test, then a lot will be lost in education. If we can make time to teach basic social skills that our students are not getting at home, students will perform better at school both socially and emotionally. If we can take time to teach cultural competence to students while they are young they will be able to not only embrace the culture from which their belief systems stem, but they will also be more likely to be accepting of others and able to appreciate the diversity of their classmates. We can teach these principles through various teaching methods such as discovery learning where our students will find success through higher level thinking and decision making strategies. We can continue to teach the basic core knowledge that has proven to be a good foundation for education, and our students will find success when it comes to standardized testing time. When we can look at our students as a whole person and impart to them all of the skills and knowledge that they need to be successful in life we will heal our schools and our students’ successes will be our own. High Stakes Testing 14 References Agyeman, Dr. J. (2001). Steps to becoming culturally competent communicators. Human Nature, 6, 1-2. Retrieved July 26, 2003 from http://www.usaid.gov/environment/greencom Amerin, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning [Education policy analysis archives]. Retrieved July 26, 2003 from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v10n18/ Bennett, W.J., Finn, C. E., Jr., & Cribb, J.T., Jr. (1999). The educated child: A parent’s guide from preschool through eighth grade. New York: The Free Press. Faber, A., Mazlish, E., Nyberg, L., & Templeton, R. A. (1995). How to talk so kids can learn at home and at school. New York: Rawson Associates. Kohn, A. (2003). The case against "tougher standards". Retrieved July 26, 2003 from http://www.alfiekohn.org/standards/rationale.htm Martin, R. A. (2002). Alternatives in education: An exploration of learner-centered, progressive, and holistic education. Paths of learning, 1-24. Retrieved July 26, 2003 from http://www.pathsoflearning.com/library/AERA2002.cfm Paige, R. (2002, April). Welcome letter [U.S. Department of Education website ED.gov]. Retrieved October 10, 2003 from http://www.ed.gov/nclb/overview/welcome/index.html Reyhner, J. (1992). Teaching American Indian students. Norman: University of Oklahoma.
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