Standardized Testing v. Meaningful Measuring

Testing Image

As the national debate over standardized testing continues to rage, Kennedy Catholic continues to measure achievement in a more meaningful way: the exceptional lives our students lead.

A recent study revealed that public school districts in the Midwestern and Eastern United States spend between 19 and 45 days each year preparing students for and administering standardized tests. That means a minimum of 114 and as many as 270 instructional days are sacrificed to testing if students take the exams in grades three through eight as they do in Pennsylvania.

Think about it: 270 days, a year-and-half of valuable classroom time, lost forever. Unfortunately, the hours devoted to standardized testing will increase substantially in the very near future as public school districts here in Pennsylvania and across the United States implement the federally-mandated core curriculum—and begin administering the additional standardized tests that go along with it.

It’s little wonder that students, parents, teachers, administrators, and education experts across Pennsylvania and the nation are pushing back. Recent articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times chronicle the growing frustration with testing. The Post reports that a wide range of academics, policy makers, and educators are asking hard questions about the effectiveness of testing as a measure of achievement. Among them is U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan who acknowledged the problem last August. He said testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room,” and pledged to do something about it.

But Robert Schaeffer of the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing said Secretary Duncan’s promise is not enough. “It’s baby steps,” he said. “We’ve had 12 years of this high-stakes testing, and the evidence on the ground is that it’s not working. And the public is getting angrier and angrier.” Mr. Schaeffer’s point is underscored by the fact that 60,000 New York students staged a boycott and refused to take the state’s standardized exams earlier this year.

The Times article details the growing rebellion against testing in Florida where schools dedicate an average of 60 to 80 days to testing:

Parents railed at a system that they said was overrun by new tests coming from all levels — district, state and federal. Some wept as they described teenagers who take Xanax to cope with test stress, children who refuse to go to school and teachers who retire rather than promote a culture that seems to value testing over learning.

“My third grader loves school, but I can’t get her out of the car this year,” Dawn LaBorde, who has three children in Palm Beach County schools, told the gathering, through tears. Her son, a junior, is so shaken, she said, “I have had to take him to his doctor.” She added: “He can’t sleep, but he’s tired. He can’t eat, but he’s hungry.”

One father broke down as he said he planned to pull his second grader from school.
“Teaching to a test is destroying our society,” he said.

Parents are expressing the same frustration here in Pennsylvania. In an op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Kathy Newman, an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon conveyed her serious concerns about the effect the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests (PSSAs) are having on her son Linden, his teachers, and his school:

High-stakes tests also warp the educational environment. This March, as Linden was gearing up for the PSSAs, the hallways were stripped bare, though state law requires only that displays pertaining to the tests be taken down. Artwork, motivational slogans, student-made posters, the Women’s History display my kids helped to make, my daughter’s picture of herself as a “writer” when she grows up, the “dream” statements everyone filled out in January with the large cutout of Martin Luther King — all of it has been removed. During testing season, access to Linden’s new iPads — for which I helped to write the grant that allowed us to acquire them — will also be curtailed.

How has the Pennsylvania education establishment reacted to the alarms raised about standardized testing? By increasing the regimen, including instituting the Keystone Exams that public school seniors will be required to pass before they can graduate. You could read about it all in the 153-page PowerPoint presentation the PA Department of Education requires teachers and administrators to review every year. You probably have better things to do—the teachers who are forced to read the document probably feel the same way.

Fortunately, students, parents, and teachers at the Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools (KCFS) don’t have to wait for politicians and policy makers to deal with the testing dilemma—a process that could take years and result in the loss of millions of hours of precious instructional time.

That’s because the KCFS is not required to administer the PSSAs or the Keystone Exams. Instead, Saint John Paul II Elementary School (SJPII) and Kennedy Catholic Middle School (KCMS) administer assessments and tests that require hours rather than weeks to complete and don’t interfere with or interrupt the normal learning process.

At SJPII students’ writing and math skills are assessed each year. “The Writing assessments are performed three times per year in the fall, winter, and spring and take only 45 minutes to an hour on each of two days,” Principal Bill Lyon explained. “The Math Assessments are given twice a year in the fall and spring and take about the same amount of time.”

Mr. Lyon, who came to SJPII last year after a distinguished career as a public school teacher and administrator said he knows all too well how much time is taken away from instruction in order to prepare for and administer the mandated tests. “The days our students spend learning rather than testing gives them a real advantage over children in public schools,” he said.

According to Principal Victoria Wagner, testing at KCMS includes writing and math assessments, the Stanford Achievement Tests, and the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS). “The math and writing assessments are administered three times per year to all students and take no more than one classroom period,” Principal Wagner said. “The Stanfords are given during the first week of October and take only four half-days, and the DIBELS, which take only six minutes to complete, our given to our sixth graders three times per year. Clearly, we devote very little time to testing in comparison to public schools.”

What do KCFS students and teachers do with the hundreds of hours they DON’T spend preparing for and taking standardized tests?

We use those hours to focus on teaching critical thinking and reasoning skills. On observing, exploring, growing, and discovering. On teaching Catholic morals, values, and principles that nurtures our students’ souls, God-given talents, and natural curiosity.

While public schools students are using pencils to color in ovals, ours are using their computers to break down the walls of the traditional classroom and access the universe of knowledge available on the Internet.

All of which leads to this question: how do we assess achievement without giving achievement tests? By using the measurements that really matter: the number of KCFS graduates who attend college, including prestigious universities like Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ivy League Schools; the millions of dollars in financial aid our graduates receive each year; our students’ performance on the SATs, and most importantly their success in college and in life.