Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It's Complicated: Standardized Testing And Equity

Lately, there have been a lot - A LOT -- of thoughts about standardized testing in my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I get a couple of education briefing emails daily, and they are also chock-full of talk about testing.

Most of the talk is dichotomized: Tests = good. Tests = bad. I reject the notion that I have to be unequivocally for or against standardized testing. As an education advocate and teacher coach, I believe that intellectual complexity, while not part of the American political discourse, should be something that we strive for.

This means that if we are to find the best path for our kids, we have to be able to hold complicated ideas in our minds (as someone who is most familiar with people in education reform, I find that most of them actually do hold these sort of nuanced positions, but are mischaracterized by the opposing side, and I'm sure it goes the opposite way as well.)

We can believe that testing, as currently practiced, is biased WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY believing that right now, it is an important tool for equity.

If you look into the history of intelligence testing, you will find that it is deeply linked to the eugenics movement, to attempts at sorting people into those who deserve power and those who don't. We know that many standardized tests are biased - I recently read an SAT question in which the test taker was asked to edit a passage about skiing, which was really challenging if you couldn't picture what was happening in the passage. I mean, how many of us have the means or opportunity to go skiing regularly? Standardized test questions are often raced and classed to focus on background knowledge that is more commonly held by White, middle class kids (or even upper middle class - per the skiing example).

However, such tests are currently an important tool for uncovering the faults in our education system. In the state of Texas, where I work, the tests are minimum standards tests, which means that they test a fairly basic set of reading and math skills. If most kids are not passing them, it means that we are not doing our basic job as educators, and if there are gaps by race, class, language status, that means that we are failing children based upon those factors. Do the tests need to be improved? Yes. But do they give us important information about the continued racism and classism in our school systems? Yes.

We can believe that poverty needs to be addressed in our society WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY believing in the abilities of all children to succeed in school.

One of the most specious arguments leveled against ed reformers is that they don't take poverty into account when asserting that children from low-income neighborhoods can be successful. Anti-reformers charge that until poverty is solved and children are food secure, have medical care, etc. we can't expect kids to do well.

This is just false. I know it is because I've been in the classrooms where kids from low-income families are excelling (I estimate that I've been in several hundred classrooms by this point in my career). These classrooms are taught by a range of teachers - new in the profession, years in the profession. Traditionally trained and alternatively certified. They have been in schools that have huge numbers of resources, and schools that have very few. The common denominator is that they believe their kids can do it - more than that, that they believe students from low-income communities are uniquely positioned to be the leaders of tomorrow.

All of these teachers who are leading kids to excel would love it if a range of social supports were put in place for their students. In particular, in my community, mental health care is the hardest to find. However, this doesn't stop these teachers from finding ways to reach their students, to communicate care, and to teach rigorous curriculum. 

We can see the negatives of a "testing culture" WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY recognizing that people create the culture, not tests.

People, it's real that teachers and kids are feeling way too much pressure around testing. As a teacher coach, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to help teachers navigate relationships with administrators who want to see test prep, test prep, and more test prep. These administrators are feeling pressure from their bosses. Through all of this, I coach teachers to find a way to do what is best for kids, which is to teach a rich, rigorous curriculum that goes way beyond test strategies.

Often, teachers who are committed to this idea find themselves practicing what Martin Luther King, Jr. defined as creative maladjustment. This means that they find ways to do what they know is right for kids, while doing it in ways that, honestly, keep them out of trouble in this testing culture. They do this because they believe in kids and families, and they know that keeping their jobs is the best way to be there for those kids and families.

It's these classrooms where kids excel, not the ones where kids are just learning testing strategies. Anyone who argues that "the test made me do it" in regard to teaching a low-rigor curriculum is just wrong. It's how we approach the tests in our schools that results in the crazy culture, not the tests (but since tests can't talk back, they make good scapegoats.)

We can believe in the power and wisdom of parents.

I'm not going to qualify that one. We need to listen to parents, and not all parents have the same interests. Unfortunately, the parents who are heard most often are not people of color or people from low-income communities.

While many White, upper middle class parents talk about opting their kiddos out of standardized assessments (which I totally understand), we have to realize that being able to make that choice comes from a place of privilege. If you can opt your child out of an exam, you aren't counting on a scholarship or a magnet school acceptance that results from a test score. You aren't worried that one act of opting out could hurt your child's entire future.

Most of the parents I work with want their kids to do well in exams because they know that these are door openers for their kiddos. Is it fair that so much rides on these tests? No. But it does. Parents want us in the education field to do better for their children, and that includes helping them to excel on these types of standardized tests.

As a teacher, I hated testing. I won't lie about that. My students did well AND I taught them a curriculum that involved social studies simulations of the Oregon Trail, class-written plays, writing digital books, reading Narnia books. You might say: hey, you must have had a ton of resources. Nope. When I started teaching I had a case of phonics readers from the 70's and a box full of dittos and silverfish that my predecessor left behind. I created almost everything we had, or slowly acquired it over time (this was before Donors Choose allowed teachers to easily get donations). My students were almost all English language learners and many came in several years behind -- most of the classrooms I currently coach have similar demographics.

I would have loved it if I didn't have to worry about a standardized test, that my students didn't have to sit for days, bubbling in answer books with their No. 2 pencils. However, I knew that it was critical both to their futures and to my ability to gauge whether I was doing right by them. When their parents showed up at the classroom door, asking: "Did she pass?" I had to be able to say yes. And if the answer wasn't yes, I had to tell them what I was going to do to change my practice and help their kiddo succeed in order to go to the next grade prepared.

Until we find a better way of determining whether we are doing right by kids in our schools, such tests are going to be necessary. I'm worried that current anti-testing movements are going to turn back the clock to a time when we pretended that everything was OK in our schools. Yet, I still want to find that better way. It's complicated.

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