Readers Write: An alternative to standardized test

I do not agree with the editorial position taken in the June15 Blank Slate Media newspapers.

My objections are based on a lifetime of teaching and teacher training, the latter for over four decades as a professor of Education at Queens College.

To put things in context, many believe that our schools are failing  and need systemic reform.

In my opinion, the problem is that most of the proposed solutions exacerbate the problem, but more about this later.

The editorial focuses on the opt-out movement in New York State.

What is the origin of this movement? It begins with the federal “Every Student Succeeds Act” which required that schools have a 95% participation rate

in specified standardized tests. The state Education Department  mandated that students in grades 3-8 take tests in the areas of Mathematics, English and Science.

Parenthetically, the number of parents in the U.S. who have decided to “opt- their children out is over half a million while in New York State it is one in five.

The editorial points out how standardized tests can be used to evaluate teacher performance.

I am opposed to this on grounds that standardized tests are not valid and, even if they were, they should not be the basis for letting otherwise qualified teachers go.

First, as to the validity of the tests, I cannot get into the weeds on this, but the tests are controversial. I would refer the interested reader to the writings of Deborah Meier, a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient and the founder of four highly successful  schools in Spanish Harlem; Frank Smith, a renowned psycholinguist and prolific author and Alfie Kohn activist and author.

Several of them make the point that high scores on standardized tests  discriminate against minority populations and correlate with one’s zip code more than anything else – in other words, if your zip is in an affluent area, you’ll do better than if you live in a zip in the ghetto.

Much has been made of the accountability movement.

If a businessman makes unwise decisions, he loses money, but if a teacher fails, she is protected by tenure. What this argument overlooks is that making money is what businesses are about, but this is not analogous to teaching the young.

Teachers are about creating an environment which is humanistic, creative, fosters critical thinking and problem solving and so much more.

Another problem which led to the “opt-out” movement was “teaching to the test.”

This means that teachers would spend an inordinate amount of time preparing their kids for the exam.

Why wouldn’t they when their job depended on it? It also led to short shrift being paid to subjects in the curriculum which were not tested, e.g. Social Studies. Music and Art.

For many years, I worked with a New York City teacher who was so incensed with the testing  mania that she falsified her students’ scores.

While I never condoned her dishonesty, her action exemplified the intensity of the anti-testing sentiment of some classroom teachers.

The fact that suspect standardized tests could be the basis for school closures, dismissal of teachers or principal’s bonuses is ludicrous.

How then should we assess teacher qualifications?

Again, this is a topic about which books have been written, but since I’ve been so critical of the tests, here are a few better ways to judge teacher effectiveness: student participation, a variety of teaching techniques, intellectual challenges, creating a collaborative classroom and meeting the students’ needs.

At the start of this letter, I said that there are many successful educational approaches quite  different from ours.

Let me focus on some in Europe.

England has long had what it calls “informal education” which has an impressive record.  In New Zealand, there are few homework assignments (much admired by U.S. parents) no spelling drills, no filling out workbooks, and no standardized reading tests until  the age of 15, yet they outscore the rest of the world in reading.

Finland,  too, is highly successful rising to the top by doing the exact opposite of what we Americans do.

No child in Finland ever takes a standardized test. They have also solved the problem of academic difference among  socio-economic groups while we in the U.S. continue to emulate a business model which doesn’t work.

My final thought – I’m not convinced that the those who espouse “opt-out” think of it as a desideratum.

They simply didn’t want to take on the  educational establishment with its arcane models and fraudulent assumptions.

Dr. Hal Sobel,

Great Neck

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The Island Now

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