Sunday, October 23, 2011



By Jeff Mangum – Pomerando News |

  • Poway is a city of 50,000 located north of the city of San Diego and south of the city of Escondido in San Diego County.

“I recently read an article about cheating on standardized tests — by teachers, not by students. This encapsulates much of what’s wrong with public education: Over emphasis on standardized tests, unwillingness to address deeper systemic problems, a pervasive lack of honesty and integrity from students and parents through teachers and administration (and let’s be realistic, through state legislatures and Congress), unfairly placing all the blame for education failures on teachers, and so on. Why does the Poway Unified School District rely so much on standardized tests?“ Molly, mother of three

The easy answer is that state and federal law requires standardized testing. In 2002 Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which mandated annual testing in all 50 states.

Jeff Mangum writes this education column and is the Poway Unified School District Board Clerk >>

But that simplistic response does not adequately address what is a very significant debate among educators, policy makers and politicians. The expanded use of standardized testing to make important policy decisions — so called high-stakes testing — is an issue that every parent needs to understand and every voter should consider. This is a very big deal.

Standardized tests — tests administered to all students and scored in a consistent manner — offer many important advantages. They are easier to administer and grade (by computer), allow teachers to track students’ progress, provide valuable information to improve student learning, avoid teacher bias, and allow teachers and others to compare student achievement (as reflected by test results) from school to school, district to district or even country to country.

Indeed, NCLB is designed to compare schools’ performance, based on the belief that setting high expectations for students, teachers, and schools and then holding them accountable will lead to improvement in student achievement. The theory is that such high-stakes testing forces students and teachers to take education seriously.

Critics respond that high-stakes standardized testing adversely affects both what schools teach and how they teach it and that such testing can harm students, teachers, and schools. School systems design curriculum around standardized tests, and teachers “teach to the test” instead of covering other topics like art or music. Teachers derisively refer to it as “drill and kill.” In addition, standardized tests’ usual format — multiple choice — may limit students’ critical, creative thinking and problem solving. After all, we simply don’t live in a multiple choice world. Standardized tests may also be unconsciously biased against minority or disadvantaged students.

Moreover, standardized testing’s emotional impact on students can be significant. The Sacramento Bee reported that test-induced stress is so common that one test includes instructions on what to do with a test booklet if a student vomits on it. Students who score poorly may also become disillusioned and stop trying. Low scores also hurt teacher morale. Schools, districts and even communities may come to perceive themselves as substandard because of scores that compare unfavorably to others’ results.

But the real problem comes when test results are used to determine school funding, salary increases, bonuses, promotions, and other rewards or to punish chronically low-performing schools. When test results are used to reward or punish schools and school districts — the kind of high stakes testing upon which NCLB is based — educators may be tempted to cheat.

Earlier this year an extensive investigation found 178 teachers and principals at 44 Atlanta schools were directly involved in cheating on the state’s standardized test. Administrators were found to have ignored repeated warnings about cheating. Many acknowledged their involvement, and some even invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. And Atlanta isn’t alone. One study reported that 9 percent of teachers confessed they cheated to improve test scores.

So is standardized testing inherently bad? Of course not. Standardized testing is a critical tool responsible schools use to diagnose problems and determine whether students have learned what teachers have tried to teach. But when standardized test results are used as a substantial factor in high-stakes decisions regarding graduation, grade promotion, funding, or teacher compensation, or when they are used to punish schools, as NCLB does, they are far more harmful than helpful.

Do standardized tests help improve student performance? What is the Poway Unified School District doing with standardized tests? Next week’s column will tackle these aspects of the critically important issue of standardized testing.

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