High-Stakes Standardized Tests: What are they costing us?
By: Dr. Yohuru Williams
Councilwoman and Committee Chair Blackwell and other distinguished members of the Philadelphia City Council Education Committee, I would like to add my voice to those who have testified before you this afternoon about the dangers and adverse effects of standardized testing on young people.
My father was educated in the city of Philadelphia so I feel a special connection to this city. I live right across the bridge in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and for close to a decade, in the early 2000s I facilitated professional development programs for history and social studies teachers through the department of Curriculum and Instruction in this city. I am therefore deeply aware of how dedicated and innovative Philadelphia teachers have been in creating new and imaginative ways for students to learn.
I have always been impressed with the range of academic offerings in this city and the myriad ways in which the curriculum was delivered. The adoption of high stakes tests as a measure of student achievement will not be a step forward but a step back. I am here to ask you to use your influence to check the expansion of high stakes testing in this city.
As you have already heard, when administrators rely solely on standardized tests as the primary measure of student growth and development and for decisions regarding teacher accountability, they put schools at risk in several important ways. I respectfully ask that the committee consider four issues neatly encapsulated in the letters that form the word KIDS. By doing so you will make our students your highest priority—for in reality High Stakes Testing does nothing for kids. High Stakes Testing, for example, does not encourage the acquisition of knowledge. High Stakes testing lacks integrity. High Stakes testing is destructive to schools and communities. High States testing produces and reinforces social and economic stratification and segregation.
High Stakes Testing does not emphasize the acquisition of knowledge but focuses on a skill; test taking that is not an adequate measure of a student’s knowledge or potential. They also contribute to the development of schools that are limited by their singular focus in achieving satisfactory test scores. Districts, for instance, will be more likely to define their curricula and instruction based on the tests. This restricts the realm of inquiry to those subjects that are tested. Course offerings are diminished. Teacher creativity is stifled. Testing comes to dominate the curriculum. Courses are modeled on how to perform well on tests, not on the higher order thinking that will be necessary for students to gain admission to college or perform in the job market. Those subjects that are not tested such as music and the arts—which have long been central to cognitive development - are eliminated to make room for increased test prep. There is also little room for teachers to explore content beyond the range of the tests. In short, the school becomes little more than a testing laboratory.
This has become overwhelmingly evident in reports coming from every corner of our country. High Stakes Testing does not produce the results its proponents claim. Studies conducted in both 2013 and 2014, for instance, illustrate that testing is not yielding students well prepared for college or even the entrance exams by which they gain admission to college. Results from those studies show negative growth overall; SAT scores for 2013 plummeted by 20 points, the biggest drop since 2006. In addition, the achievement gap for minority students increased significantly, over that period with students of color still lagging behind their counterparts on the SAT and ACT.
High Stakes Testing lacks integrity. In numerous states from California to Connecticut, the adoption of high Stakes testing has led to cheating scandals. Pennsylvania has not been unaffected. As you may recall, in 2009, 225 Pennsylvania schools, including 88 Philadelphia district schools and 11 city charters were flagged for suspicious anomalies that raised the specter of widespread cheating on standardized-testing. Two of the most obvious involved questionable fluctuations in test scores and highly abnormal participation rates by certain classifications of students. The presence of cheating is not uncommon and goes hands in hand with high stakes testing. This is because High Stakes Testing encourages teachers to teach to the test and administrators to pursue advantages in securing the highest test scores no matter the cost. This problem is magnified when teacher evaluations and the possibility of school closures are tied to student performance on tests. This is as unacceptable as it is undesirable and has compromised the integrity not only of the testing instruments but schools and communities in which they are used.
High Stakes Testing is destructive to schools and communities. It is most destructive in cities like Philadelphia where poverty is high and where there are high concentrations of people of color. As Education Historian Diane Ravitch observed, “The crisis in US education is not general and national. It is concentrated where there is poverty and segregation. Testing does not address either problem.” By allowing schools to be converted into testing laboratories, districts are undermining the function of schools as centers of community involvement that offer a range of exhibitions of student achievement tied to their learning. These occur not only in athletics, but also in music and the arts and civic engagement. When schools are closed and labeled underperforming or low performing, communities are adversely affected. The loss of these centers of social and political engagement further alienate those most in need of substantive connections to the types of after-school programs, community projects, and community to campus initiatives that many of these schools support.
Finally, High Stakes Testing promotes segregation and stratification. High Stakes Testing allows students to be divided into two camps based on test scores. Those who do not test well find themselves pushed to the side. Since many students of color do not perform well on standardized tests, they are routinely marginalized within the system. More importantly, school closures further penalize those students who most benefit from a broad curriculum but are saddled with testing mandates that jeopardize not only their own future but also the future of the schools they attend.
It is for all these reasons that I strongly urge this body to work toward an end to high stakes testing. Philadelphia students deserve better than this. Philadelphia teachers deserve better than this. The people of this beautiful and historic city deserve better than this. Help them restore a system of teaching and learning with real value that truly promotes college and career readiness through a range of academic courses and ample opportunity for other means of intellectual engagement beyond the complement of tests. Let what happens here in Philadelphia be a model for the nation. Show parents, teachers and students that their voices have been heard, that our democracy works, and aid them in their effort to put an end to the use of high stakes tests.