Pop The Bubbles: Thoughts on Standardized Testing

Today I lift up my metaphorical number two pencils not to fill in bubbles, but to pop some bubbles. I want to share truths with regard to standardized testing and its effects on children and classrooms.

I also want to urge school districts to keep track of the sheer time spent coping with state and federally mandated tests—teacher time, student time, computer time, and classroom time. Then, I want school districts to do the math. How much does that time cost taxpayers and students?

In the last section of this post, I use eight of my favorite books to illustrate additional reasons why standardized testing should not be as ubiquitous as it is today.

Mommy, May I Have a “Sick” Day?

Bear with PencilsAbout two decades ago, one of my children figured out that the purpose of the Ohio Fourth Grade Proficiency Test was NOT to test students, but rather to test teachers. After reading an article in the Columbus Dispatch about parents refusing to send their children to school on testing days, my child asked for a similar “sick” day.

Think about that. A child asking for a “sick” day, essentially because of a “sick” system that devotes untold dollars, staff time, classroom time, and number two pencils to state and federally mandated standardized testing enacted before and after No Child Left Behind.

I told my child the truth as I knew it then–that the standardized testing amounts to political shenanigans on the state and federal levels, filtered down into classrooms, affecting individual children and their teachers.

Next, we had a long discussion about good citizenship, about choosing one’s battles, and about supporting our local teachers and schools in their state mandated quests for high scores. At the end of our discussion, my child agreed to take the test—to be nice, to be a good citizen.

But that was a generation ago, before standardized tests grew and grew in importance, before school boards and school administrators forced teachers and students to spend more and more time on test preparation, and before schools were penalize for low test scores.

The Opt Out Movement: Large and Growing

I applaud the growing numbers of parents who vote with their children’s feet (and hopefully with their children’s well-informed consent) to avoid school on standardized testing days. The opt out movement has grown to the point where nearly 30,000 students on Long Island skipped state mandated tests last spring.

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 10.13.24 AMIn Want Your Kids To Opt Out of Standardized Tests? The Constitution May Be with You, Anya Kamenetz, who is NPR’s lead digital education reporter, explained what led to the Long Island protest, mentioned the success of similar protests around the country, discussed the backlash that opting out families and their children in some locations have experienced, and mentioned statutes in California, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that expressly give parents the right to keep students out of state mandated assessments. Last week Amazon.com released Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be, which includes much of the same content and “recounts the shocking history and tempestuous politics of testing and borrows strategies from fields as diverse as games, neuroscience, and ancient philosophy to help children cope.”

Fair Test, an organization long concerned about college admissions tests including the SAT and ACT, now provides detailed advice on its website here for families who want to opt out of standardized testing. Fair Test explains, ““Opting out” of testing is a potentially powerful way to resist No Child Left Behind and the way standardized testing distorts and corrupts K-12 classrooms. Growing numbers of parents and students are questioning the value of NCLB testing and saying they want to exercise the right to opt out.”

My New Advice for Children

Although I am proud of the advice I gave my child twenty years ago, my “be nice, be a good citizen” advice is no longer a complete answer for children who realize that standardized tests are not about them. Our children deserve better information about standardized tests, and deserve better information about the politics surrounding standardized tests. Our children also deserve better options with regard to those tests, including the option to skip the tests if their parents allow them to opt out.

The Triumvirate of Standards, Testing, and Accountability

Some of the information available online about standardized tests does not match reality. The Brookings Institution usually issues excellent papers about education, but not last week. In The Case for Annual Testing, the authors argued: “[I]t would be a serious mistake for Congress to treat standards, testing, and accountability as a single target to be taken out with a shotgun blast. Each member of the triumvirate can exist on its own and has a different impact on school performance. And each has a different rationale and political basis in our federal system of education.”

Think about that. Standardized testing currently used for a triumvirate of purposes: (1) upholding curricular standards, (2) testing the progress and learning needs of individual children, and (3) testing the efficacy of teachers and schools. I agree with the authors that if we are going to keep just one purpose, jettison the political ones and keep only the middle one—the one that relates to living, breathing children.

But divorcing a governmentally mandated test from its political purposes is well-nigh impossible. The minute the aggregated test results from millions of individual children are released to the public, as the Brookings authors assert is necessary for research and public evaluation purposes, the tests are no longer solely about individual children, but are also about politics.

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.

I also take issue with the Brookings authors’ assertions that (1) concerned parents are reacting to test prep regimes, not to the test themselves, (2) if federal targets and sanctions are eliminated, “so too should much of the test prep regime,” and (3) the tests themselves “take no more than a day of school time to administer.” Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

The Fair Test website’s resource page titled The Case Against High Stakes Testing, gives plenty of reasons why parents object to the tests themselves, and not just to the test prep regimes. Even if federal targets and sanctions are eliminated, many state targets and sanctions will likely remain, thus continuing the legacy of test prep regimes that occupy umpteen hours of children’s lives in school.

Clock with PencilsThe most remarkable assertion by the Brookings authors is that “the tests themselves take no more than a day of school time to administer.” Tell that to a public school administrator. In today’s world of complex school schedules, special education needs, and computerized tests, standardized tests often gobble up weeks of school time.

Teachers must attend meetings to learn how to administer the heavily regulated tests. In schools that give computerized versions of the tests, tech staff members need many days to prepare computers and computer labs. Few schools have sufficient resources to test all students at the same time. Some students need special accommodations during testing. Some students need extra time for testing. Some students need their testing times rescheduled after absences due to illness. Testing takes time.

An Ohio Example

This year, Ohio school districts are giving high school students not only the Ohio Graduate Test (OGT), but also American Institutes for Research tests (AIR) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests (PARCC).

In one Ohio public high school, for example:

  1. teachers must attend multiple staff trainings to learn how to administer the tests,
  2. the tests will continue during most of the month of February,
  3. the school’s computers will be dedicated to the testing program during that time,
  4. classes during February will suffer from test-related interruptions, missing students, and lack of computer resources,
  5. teachers whose subject areas are included on the tests are expected to teach to the tests,
  6. earlier in the school year, many classes were interrupted by students taking PSATs and taking practice OGTs
  7. teachers must design and administer SLO (Student Learning Objectives) tests, which while not standardized, are required by Ohio law and add to the number of tests that occupy teacher time and student time.

If you think that the current Ohio testing regime is hard on teachers, just think how hard the regime is on students. It’s not easy for students to miss multiple classes, to make up missed lessons, and to spend a month without computer resources in their classrooms.

Popping the Time/Money Bubble

Far too often people forget to calculate the time involved in education policy decisions. If you want to see people’s jaws drop, do some math. Calculate exactly how many homework hours the reading and writing assignments your literature curriculum demand, or how many hours of a student’s life the multi-faceted International Baccalaureate gobbles up. In Curricular Time Studies: Preventative Measures for Student Health and Well-Being, (first published in the International School Magazine’s Summer 2013 issue), I wrote about how failure to consider time issues negatively affects students’ lives.

How many school districts keep track of the full costs of state and federally mandated standardized testing? How many school districts count the hours that teachers spend in meetings, and multiply those hours by the hourly salaries of those teachers? How many school districts count students’ classroom hours lost by reason of prepping for the tests and taking the tests, and multiply those hours by the per pupil “cost per hour” in their school district?

The full cost of standardized testing in school districts around the country likely dwarfs the $65 per student (grades 3-9) estimated cost of the tests themselves, as reported on November 29, 2012, in the Brookings Institution paper, Strength in Numbers: State Spending on K-12 Assessment Systems.

A Wider View of Education: Eight Books from My Bookshelf

Books Two

Money issues aside, there are many other reasons to rethink the current standardized testing regime in our nation’s public schools. To illustrate some of my non-monetary objections, I grabbed eight of my favorite books.

Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (1991) opened many eyes to how poverty stricken inner city public school districts in our country differ radically from wealthy suburban public school districts. The differences that Kozol illustrates are inhumane, unethical, and a whole bunch of cuss words that I promised not use in this post. The differences, through no fault of children or their teachers, affect learning and consequently affect children’s performances on standardized tests.

Misdiagnoses and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults by Webb, et al. (2005) illustrates problems associated with diagnoses of behavioral and emotional disorders in gifted children and adults. Many of those disorders, as well as some of the symptoms that result in misdiagnoses, can affect learning and can consequently affect children’s performances on standardized tests.

Those two books, together, illustrate that when children are victims of poorly funded schools or when children suffer from symptoms that result in diagnoses or misdiagnoses of behavioral or emotional disorders, standardized testing results can be tainted by factors beyond the control of the children, their teachers, and their schools. If politicians and policymakers would use low scores primarily to determine where to send extra education dollars to help children in need, I would be happy. But in some areas low scores are used primarily to punish teachers, schools, and sometimes children (e.g. “pass this test or repeat a grade”). That’s simply not fair.

The next two books, Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child (2013) and the Newbery Honor book, Surviving the Applewhites (2002), are two of my favorite books that view children as individuals, not as products to be educated in factory-model schools standardized by mandates of federal and state governments. Those two books well illustrate the importance of focusing K-12 education on children’s whole lives, not on children’s test scores.

The next three books illustrate that learning involves feelings and creativity, not just testable facts. Sophie’s World (1991), a novel originally written in Norway to be used in high school philosophy classes, teaches students philosophy by letting them feel the main character’s experiences as she learns firsthand how famous philosophers have imagined life to be.

The idea of education involving feelings is not new; the book Fantasy and Feeling in Education (1968) argues that both imagination and feelings are important in education. Another old book, Creativity and its Cultivation (1959), includes addresses presented at an interdisciplinary symposium. One presenter’s complaint about education near his time (on page 181) sounds hauntingly similar to complaints about education today: “Education, frequently viewed as an aggregation of facts of the preparatory stages of a prosaic life, [is] carried on in scholastic tradition. The urge to inquire, to invent, to perform was stifled in millions of school children, now grown up, who did not get above rote learning, or at least did not stay above it.”

I wish standardized tests were able to capture more than the regurgitation of knowledge and the solving of pencil and paper problems; I wish the tests could capture feelings, passions, and motivations as measures of educational success. As a teacher, I value lighting up one students’ passion for learning literature far more than I value teaching that same student one hundred rules of grammar, or one hundred vocabulary words.

The last book in my stack, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education (2009) by Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb paints the future of education in a far different light than many of us ever imagined as we were growing up. Huge doses of technology and opportunity populate Moe and Chubb’s view of education’s future. When talking about standardized testing, the authors assert that accountability makes sense, but has been corrupted by teachers’ unions and by the political process in general. The authors hope for a future accountability system with a focus “on making schools work for children, instead of protecting the jobs and work privileges of adults.”

Although I do not join Moe and Chubb in casting blame on teachers’ unions for the current standardized testing climate in our country, I hope Congress and state legislatures carefully listen to their voices and to all other voices in the debate about standardized testing. Children in our nation’s schools deserve thoughtful reform of the current politically-motivated system that occupies so much of their childhoods.


I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. I’ve written this article as part of Gifted Homeschoolers Forum’s first ever Rapid Response effort.

Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the names, blog names, post titles, and blog links of other Rapid Response participants, as well as related articles by other authors. The Twitter hashtag for this Rapid Response about standardized testing is #lesstests. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs and joining in the Twitter fun.

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