Our bubble-headed, zombie-creating reliance on high-stakes testing

Reposted from http://www.newsobserver.com

By Ilina Ewen and Pamela Grundy

How are standardized tests like zombies? They’re mindless, and they just keep coming. For more than a decade, North Carolina schools and students have suffered from an onslaught of high-stakes standardized tests. These zombie tests have invaded our schools, sucking time and money from teaching and learning. They’ve deadened creativity and original thought, squashed imagination, stripped both teachers and students of dignity.

Like zombies, these tests just won’t die. Despite conclusive evidence that the explosion of testing under No Child Left Behind did more harm than good, the numbers and the cost of tests continue to multiply.

It’s time for state leaders to do what they can to end the madness.

Learning is a lifelong pursuit. Schools should inspire students, not enrich corporations. They should ignite curiosity, not quell it.

As the parents of North Carolina public school students, we have seen the harm these tests have done to schools and to students of every background and ability level. We have felt the tensions that pervade school hallways as test season approaches.

We have seen inventive, hands-on work pushed aside in favor of drilling for higher test scores. We have even seen English classes enshrine “test preparation” as a “genre,” placing it alongside fiction, poetry and drama.

We have seen otherwise creative children lose interest in school and complain about having to attend. We have watched these creative spirits wallow in worksheets, practice tests, assessments and rote memorization instead of writing, learning through play and immersing themselves in challenging projects.

We have sympathized with the many highly skilled teachers who have left public schools rather than fight against a system increasingly driven more by “data” and dollars than by children.

And contrary to the claims of test-makers, the tests aren’t getting better. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, they’re getting worse.

Case in point: this year’s new math tests for grades 5-8. In an unfortunate effort to meld an open-ended test with a computer-scored bubble sheet, the tests call for students to calculate an answer and then bubble that answer on a grid. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. So in addition to learning math, our children are forced to spend time studying a complex bubbling technique that has no value beyond this particular test.

The math tests are part of an onslaught of dozens of new state tests that North Carolina students are scheduled to take in the next two years. The math and English tests being introduced this year will be replaced in two years with online Common Core exams. In addition, the state Department of Education is ramping up new tests in science and social studies, part of the requirements of the state’s federal Race to the Top grant.

Most of the cost of administering these new exams will fall on local districts.

In addition, experts have clearly indicated that the limitations of standardized testing mean that the new tests will not effectively assess the skills our children most need to develop: creativity, entrepreneurship, collaboration, real-world problem-solving.

It’s crazy.

We in North Carolina cannot stand by idly and watch a generation of zombies arise before us. We call on parents, teachers and concerned community members to join us in urging our elected officials to change course.

Our state legislators can take the first steps. Senate Bill 361, the so-called “Excellence in Education Act,” contains provisions that will heighten the stakes attached to these growing numbers of tests and thus intensify the damage they do. Legislators can remove them.

The bill claims to “maximize instructional time” by limiting the time available for testing. That provision, however, fails to acknowledge that the greatest problem with high-stakes tests is the way they warp the entire educational enterprise by narrowing the curriculum and creating a “teaching to the test” mentality. Neither limiting the number of practice tests nor reducing the testing window will stop that.

The most problematic proposals are the test-based A-F grading system for schools, with a required “wide distribution” of results, and the call for a performance pay system based substantially on test results. Both attach real-world consequences (high stakes) to test scores and will intensify teaching to the narrow range of material that will be tested. Legislators should remove both provisions.

Instead, we should place at least a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes use of any test results, giving the state time to examine the many successful examples of comprehensive assessment strategies that do not rely heavily on standardized tests, including portfolios and peer review. While these strategies contain few opportunities for handsome corporate profits, they will serve our children well.

North Carolina will not thrive with a generation of zombies at its helm. Let’s stop the madness now.

Ilina Ewen of Raleigh and Pamela Grundy of Charlotte served as the 2012 and 2011 North Carolina delegates to Parenting Magazine’s Mom Congress. Find out more at notestingzombies.com/.

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One thought on “Our bubble-headed, zombie-creating reliance on high-stakes testing

  1. Pingback: The System of the Dutch State Language Examination – part 2 | Learning and teaching English in the Netherlands

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