by Steve Evangelista

The Best System We’ve Got
I had the most amazing experience in early April: the chance to sit down with teachers at my school and have an open conversation about the role of standardized testing in education policy today.

As always, I started planning for this hour-long seminar by thinking backward from an assessment, in this case the promised 2015 rollout of the Common Core-related PARCC exam in New York, one of two dozen or so states that are contributing to this test’s development.

What I learned in my session didn’t surprise me; my faculty members are insightful and passionate about their work, but they have no better answers than I do when it comes to two key questions:

  1. What better idea could replace high stakes testing and fill the gaping policy void it currently occupies?
  2. How do educators stanch the overwhelming tide of teacher and student “fear and punishment” that has grown around the testing culture?

The words “fear and punishment” come from one of two texts I used to frame the discussion, a recent blog post by John Merrow decrying the prevalence of test prep throughout the land in these weeks leading up to state assessment frenzy. I juxtaposed Merrow’s angry words with those of conciliation of a teacher named AmaNyamekye, who last year wrote an essay describing her changing attitude towards standardized tests, now that she has had a chance to analyze how they could actually help her practice.
Nyamekye came to the same conclusion I did: the wave of standardized testing has hurt all of us, but the power to use it rather than cower from it is within us as educators. Besides, in doing the important work of distinguishing low achievement from high achievement among students, and high functioning schools from ones that are hurting children, it’s the best system we’ve got. Until we can make it better (enter PARCC?), we need to use it for all it’s worth.

An Absurd Obsession
For charters, the subtext of any thinking in this area is the reality that the decision, made for all charters at a maximum of every five years, whether to dissolve our school will be based on exams that the state is about to discard because, well, the testsaren’t good enough. It’s absurd irony worthy of Jean Paul Sartre.
The richness of this irony includes one reason the state is tossing the exams: Reformers fear that current exam formats have narrowed the curriculum to such an extent that test prep is now trumping authentic good instruction. As one of the flag bearers of the crusade against test prep, Mike Schmoker, laments in his recent book, Focus, “Scores can be artificially pumped up on a diet of 500-word passages and multiple-choice drills (which many students live on)” (pp. 114-115). In other words, obsession over state tests has hampered good instruction.

The problem of test prep has now invaded even early childhood, an age group which had been spared the indignity of obsession over high-stakes multiple choice exams under No Child Left Behind. The New York Times reported last week on a disturbing trend emerging from this year’s round of kindergarten test results for admission to public school Gifted and Talented programs: Test prep is beginning to determine the winners and losers even at this level.

I am haunted by a conversation I had with a senior vice president for accountability during our authorizer’s annual visit this past winter. (Let’s call him Bob.) I was describing to him the sacrifices we have made for the first time this year in order to meet certain state test targets that are requirements in our charter–or, less mildly, to game the system.

As Bob knows from his many visits to Harlem Link over the years, we have always followed the principles embedded in our mission and our charter, even if doing so meant that we can’t guarantee hitting all of the testing targets. For example, we have:

  • …maintained strong teachers in the lower (non-testing) grades for stability and consistency, even as we grew and added upper grades. Building an upper grade program has taken years, just as it has in the lower grades, but we have had less time to do it because we began with only kindergarten and first grade and grew slowly.
  • …distributed resources disproportionately to our lowest achieving students (often meaning, our newest enrollees), not the ones who are “on the bubble” of passing the arbitrary state testing bar. As a result, we have fewer kids than we’d like achieving the passing rate, but a great number of students ”almost there.” Those don’t count in the binary land of accountability, and neither does our significantly smaller percentage than state averages of the lowest achieving scores that has resulted from our interventions.
  • …resisted the temptation of buying off the shelf curriculum that other highly touted schools use to get “teacher proof” test scores. Instead, we prefer authentic curriculum that is home-grown, guided by standards and student data, and written collaboratively by teachers and administrators.

The principles in our charter that have guided these decisions include the centrality of teacher voice in curriculum; child centered instruction; democratic leadership, meaning genuine input from all levels of the organization; and an interest in developing teachers and building a team over time.

So what was I saying to Bob? This year–in publicly available decisions made by our board of trustees in consultation with our staff–we have admitted fewer students in the upper grades, in three cases this year turning away students who had left the school in the past and tried to re-enroll mid-year; put social studies curriculum development in the upper grades on the back burner to focus on the testing subjects (New York State stopped testing social studies in 2011); prioritized the students who are close to passing the state test but not certain to do so; and hired (while holding my nose) a famous test-prep company to provide dozens of hours of after-school tutoring for those prioritized students.

We made undeniably positive changes as well that were part of our organizational plan and independent of the state testing pressures, such as modifying roles on our leadership team to give leaders more time to focus on instruction and revising lesson planning expectations across the school. But clearly, as I was telling Bob, our top priorities this year have been guided by the coming high stakes tests and the somewhat artificial achievement targets we agreed to meet when we were chartered.

“You must have mixed feelings about that,” Bob told me.

“Yes. Of course. While I like our general direction, I’m not satisfied with the aspects of our school that don’t show up on the state tests, and I want to increase our enrollment, not limit it. The tests are emphasized to the point of being a distraction.”

Bob and I have had many of these conversations over the years. But now that we have actually taken steps to follow the recipe, narrowing the curriculum and joining the testing frenzy, I felt the humanity behind Bob’s icy glare.

“Look,” he said. “I agree with you. I can’t defend this system.

“But it’s the best one we’ve got.”

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