Tuesday, May 22, 2007

STAR Testing is Poisoning Our Schools

I turn this page over today to my friend, Dale Jones, a school principal in Cupertino, CA.

Every year at this time I commit what I consider to be professional malpractice. As a school principal, I like to think that my bottom line is what's good for kids, but each year as I oversee the annual ritual of STAR testing, I become further convinced that it's not only harmful to kids, but it's damaging to the institution of public education as well. If I was a doctor and was asked to oversee a procedure that to the best of my knowledge was harmful to my patient, I have to believe that I would resist. So I have to ask myself, is my relationship with my students that different?
Should I not resist a practice that all of my professional training and experience,
as well as my conscience, tells me is wrong?

My school is an English Language Development (ELD) center for our district. This year we have students from over 35 different countries who speak more than 28 different languages. One day in the middle of our two week window for STAR testing, one of our ELD teachers called me on the intercom just before recess because three of her students hadn't finished the section of the test they were taking that morning. They'd been testing for more than an hour, forced to take a multiple choice test in a language they're just beginning to grasp, and they had to continue testing through their recess, because if they take a break they might talk about the test and violate the strict security measures surrounding STAR. I went and sat in the classroom so the teacher could have her break, which of course she's entitled to and deserves, but which, for at least that day, is denied to these students who sit struggling with words they haven't yet been taught, after having been given directions that must be read verbatim that I'm certain they didn't entirely understand.

I feel only guilt as I watch these conscientious young children struggle todo their very best. While their persistence is admirable, I also wonder if part of the reason they try so hard is because they believe that I want them to do well on this test, when what I really want is for them to randomly bubble in the rest of their answer sheets so they can go outside and be children again.

We spend two weeks on STAR testing at our school. I remember taking similar tests as a child of the same school system. I think those tests were probably an hour or so long. Like many of my peers, I was much more interested in sports than academics for much of my childhood, so I'm sure my performance suffered as it grew closer to recess. Now we give a test that totals more than 360 minutes in the second grade! We spread this out over several days, but do we really believe that testing fatigue doesn't impact the validity of the results? More importantly, what message does it
send to our children when we devote this kind of time to a test? It's no surprise to me that many of my students feel that school is essentially over after STAR testing. We may say otherwise, but they can tell by not only the time but by the entire "testing milieu" that this is the most important thing that we do. It's the only time when the gardeners aren't allowed to use the mowers or blowers, and every possible interruption from fire drills to field trips is not allowed to infringe on testing time.

I know that I live and work in a community that has placed great value on the results of these tests. It's disappointing to me that a valley that prides itself on innovation and ingenuity has so easily been duped into believing that STAR scores are a valid indicator of the quality of our schools. Even the psychometricians who create multiple choice tests admit that they're a poor tool for evaluating what a student knows. They're designed to rank students, and schools, based on a superficial measurement of a very limited range of knowledge and skills. Higher forms of knowledge, such as evaluation and synthesis of information do not lend themselves to assessment through multiple choice tests, neither do creativity, communication skills, physical abilities, musical and artistic talent, etc., etc. This is why some critics of testing have rightly cautioned that if your child's school's test scores rise rapidly there may be more reason for alarm than anything else, as it's very likely that an over emphasis on STAR results has led to a narrowing of the curricula to that which is tested, in both content and quality.

Parents are often surprised when I tell them that the results of STAR have little to no instructional value. The security surrounding the tests prohibits teachers from viewing their students' tests, so there is no opportunity for error analysis, or even to know which questions most of your students answered correctly and which ones they missed. In educational jargon we call a test that guides future instruction a formative assessment, but thereĀ¹s nothing formative about STAR. We don't even receive the results until the following school year.

As a principal in Cupertino, it's of course anathema for me to speak out against STAR testing. We take great pride in our test scores. They keep our home prices high, so high in fact that our teachers can't afford to live here. But I also believe that it's precisely because of our elevated test scores that we have an obligation to speak out against them. Wouldn't it send a great message if one of the highest ranking districts in the state collectively admitted that our scores are really a reflection of the demographics of our community and the educational level of our
parents, and that the test scores really don't reflect the true quality of our
schools? Or are we afraid of what a deeper and more reflective look at our schools might reveal?

I have colleagues in other districts who can't speak out against STAR testing for fear of losing their jobs, and most of them work in our most challenging schools and are routinely "beat up" for their low test scores. We can pull them up, and in the long run help ourselves, by educating the public about the limitations of STAR scores and the many alternatives that do a much better job of measuring how much our children have learned, as opposed to what they innately know.

It's time for teachers, administrators, and parents in "high performing" schools and districts to speak out about the fallacy and danger of using only test scores to evaluate our schools, to educate the community about the injustices of ranking schools and the harmful effects it has on "low performing" schools. It's time to end our complicity with a system of measuring students and schools that amounts to educational malpractice.

(crossposted at itlookslikethis.)

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2 Comments:

Blogger Generik said...

Isn't this (the STAR test) all a part of the vast right-wing conspiracy that includes No Child Left Behind and is ultimately aimed at eliminating public education in America? The wealthy elite will have no problem educating their sons and daughters in private schools, but the lower classes will just be that much dumber and easier to manipulate.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous PotstickerGuru said...

Dale Jones has some good points and I respect his commitment to making Nimitz Elementary stronger. But we disagree on the purpose of STAR testing. The test isn't about instructional value for the teacher or the student. It's about giving tools to parents to judge how well a school meets the most rudimentary educational needs of students and how much margin remains for a school to improve the student's acquisition of such skills.

I understand Dale's argument that the STAR tests provide no instructional value to the teachers. But it does keep me (the parent) informed as to whether or not Nimitz is truly providing a sufficiently rigorous education in basic skills. Afterall, the teachers should already know what's wrong with their kids. That's their jobs and I would expect them to proficient in classroom assessments to the point that the STAR Testing is just a confirmation of what they already suspected.

The STAR Tests, being what they are, a very low achievement bar that I'd expect any average kid taught correctly to run circles around and hop waaaayyy over, tells us that for Nimitz in 2006-07, Dale and his staff had another 152 points of margin before max'ing out.

I'd be satisfied with just 100 points improvement, since we are an ELD school so I'll credit Dale with a 52 point handicap. But as a long-term Nimitz parent with kids who'll be attending continuously from now until probably another 11 years, I like to see us hit 950 in the future. I believe it's do-able if we start working at it now. And I believe it's do-able without having to "teach solely to the test."

I do agree with Dale that a school shouldn't just be judged on how well it teaches fundamental skills. There should be other measures on less common, more intangible benefits. But the dilemma is -when- does it become appropriate to consider those intangible qualities? IMO, unless kids have a mastery first of rudimentary skills, they really don't have the requisite skills to proceed onto those intangible qualities.

Dale is exactly right when he says that the STAR Testing is currently, a reflection of the demographics of the Cupertino district. But the solution isn't to call this a right-wing conspiracy and then blindly abolish STAR Testing. Clearly that's what a near-sighted ostrich with a knee-jerk reaction would do.

The root-problem with the STAR Testing is that it isn't hard enough to really differentiate between what value the public schools are adding and what inate skills the students brought with them solely due to demographics. And I can't help suspect that many people who bash high-stakes testing and blame conservative politicians are actually either scared to assess the truth about major gaps in the public education curriculum, or they're just easily duped sheep that believe any left-wing mass media sound bite.

And we've already played the blame-game for lower-achievement. First we've blamed irresponsible parents, then we blamed their kids and their attention spans; then we blamed their socio-economic class, and now we blame the high-stakes STAR testing and the current administration for implementing the NCLB act. Has it ever occurred to people that maybe teaching methodology and the curriculum might have a huge factor in childhood learning? That simple differences in teaching methodology can close the gap between Faria and any lower-socio-economic inner city school?

This issue shouldn't be polarized by politics. We need to work together to assess what the gaps existing in our teaching techniques that screw up our kids' minds and then to implement corrective measures with our teachers and curriculum czars.

In this common goal, I'm at least glad to work with Dale. He's an outstanding administrator and leader who does listen to parents. I have hopes that by 2019, I'll turn his opinion around or at least make him eat bad BBQ crow at our PTA events.

4:40 AM  

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