Last month, sparked by the growing public concern about the increasing focus on standardized test scores, I helped organize a community conversation in New Haven, on higher-stakes standardized testing and the wellbeing of youth. The purpose of the event was to inform parents and students of the recent changes in standardized testing, their legal rights on the issue (including their ability to opt-out), and to provide a space for youth to speak openly about how high-stakes standardized testing affects their schooling experience.
Roughly 60 people attended the event, including Carlos Torre, SCSU professor and New Haven Board of Education chairman, and state Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield. Although many important perspectives were shared, the most powerful were voices of the youth, who spoke eloquently and courageously about the complexities of the increasing use of high-stakes standardized testing in schools. Three themes emerged from their perspectives:
(a) ‘Standardized-test prep’ takes away from real learning. One high school senior said that her English teacher did ‘test prep’ all of last year because of the pressure to raise standardized test scores; they didn’t read any of the American classics, like “The Scarlet Letter.” A bilingual student remembered being told in first grade, “You have to do this because you’re preparing for the test,” but the standardized test wasn’t given until 3rd grade. An elementary school student described recently losing 2-4 hours of instruction a week in math because he is now doing computer tests for the new SBAC test, which is only being used as a pilot test this year. (SBAC is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test.)
(b) The quality of instruction and learning differs significantly between Advanced Placement (AP) classes, where teachers have flexibility to create authentic learning experiences, and traditional classes, where teachers spend months of the year on test-prep. Students described their AP classes as being more interesting and said that they learn more in these classes. They also mentioned how their peers in traditional classes are most negatively affected by the test-driven curriculum because “all they do in school is test-prep, and they don’t do well on the standardized tests anyway.” Should anyone then be surprised that so many students who underperform on standardized tests drop out?
(c) Authentic, performance-based assessments should be an alternative to the continued use of high-stakes standardized testing. All students (approximately 10 spoke on the panel) agreed that performance assessments are the most valuable, motivating and accurate forms of measuring what they know and are able to do. Over 20 schools in New York have formed the Performance Assessment Consortium and have opted out of high-stakes standardized testing in place of a more holistic, research-based portfolio system. As more parents in Connecticut consider having their children opt out of these new higher-stakes standardized tests, we can expect to see a similar coalition formed locally.
Over 30 years of research supports these students’ views that increased standardization of the curriculum decreases a teacher’s ability to meet the needs of diverse learners. Recent research shows that even the SAT is not a good predictor of college success. Students’ high school GPA is a much better predictor.
Parents do have the right to have their children opt out of standardized testing. A growing number of school boards around the country (including several in Massachusetts) have voted to no longer participate in the new high-stakes standardized tests. A new wave is building, one that needs to include youths’ voices about how students learn best.
Jacob Werblow, Ph.D., is a former standardized test developer and urban classroom teacher. He is an associate professor of Teacher Education at Central Connecticut State University. Jacob lives in New Britain with his wife and two girls, who will be opting out of high-stakes standardized tests.