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Hope On the Horizon?

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the following statement: “you can’t be wedded to the old way of doing things.” While I whole-heartedly agree, I was stunned by who said it: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Not to get political, but I never imagined a day when I would honestly say that I am in agreement with this, often frustrating, national figure. It gets better. Much better. Governor DeSantis made this comment regarding moving beyond “the old way of doing things” as part of an announcement about a bill to eliminate standardized testing in high schools.

Let that sink in for a moment. It’s a lot to sit with without some time to process. The conservative leader of a ruby-red state wants to curtail standardized testing in favor of a different (can I dare to hope for “better?”) accountability method.

There are only two words to describe my reaction to this news: “wow” and “hallelujah.”

There is good reason for my enthusiasm. Our public education system has been a slave to standardized testing since 2002 with the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its re-authorization as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. The federal government holds a specter of withholding funding to states that fail to comply with the mandates outlined in these laws. (In truth, the amount of federal funding in question fails to compare to state and local funding sources; applying more prevalently to title entitlement programs.) I’ve written on this topic numerous times, and probably will continue, until we see the light.

What we know, based on hundreds of case studies and observations, is that the ritual of standard testing is dangerously stressful for students and their families who see the results as a high stakes gate-keeper for the realization of their post-secondary options. We also know that due to the punitive methods by which the results are reported, for purposes of comparison and shaming (under the guise of accountability), some of the least advantaged school districts are forced to focus on test preparation; stealing precious time away from meaningful instruction. Excluding time spent on practice sessions, students spend 20-25 hours a year sitting in front of test booklets and bubble answer sheets. 20-25 hours per year, on average, is outrageous. By the time American kids graduate from high school, they will have taken an estimated 112 standardized tests.

American University School of Education published an article February 2018 titled “Creative Alternatives to Standardized Test Taking.” It states: “In addition to the anxiety caused by taking tests, the system is also costlier than you might think. Up to 15 percent of the time allocated to the school year is spent taking assessments or preparing for them, and teachers can spend up to 26 percent of their time preparing for assessments . . . administering the entire testing system costs an estimated $1.7 billion. Not surprisingly, over 80 percent of teachers suggest that the testing system takes up too much of their students’ time.”

If this situation could possibly be worse it is the realization that these tests don’t really tell us anything substantive. They do not inform instruction, providing opportunities to adjust teaching in real time to gain a positive impact on learning. Rather, these tests produce autopsy data - after the fact, too late. They certainly cannot be relied on as a valid indicator of effective teaching. That scheme has been tried, and failed. How kids perform on these mandated tests can rarely be correlated to the instructional prowess of teachers.

My last two posts were about the differing instructional needs of students based on gender. An article about testing appeared in Edutopia, October 2019, raising this concern: “All students do not do equally well on multiple choice tests. Girls tend to do less well than boys and perform better on questions with open-ended answers, according to a 2018 study by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon, which found that test format alone accounts for 25 percent of the gender difference in performance in both reading and math. Researchers hypothesize that one explanation for the gender difference on high-stakes tests is risk aversion, meaning girls tend to guess less.”

You’re on the right track, Ron - providing that what you implement next is truly useful.

Again, citing the article in Edutopia, “The pushback on high-stakes testing has accelerated a national conversation about how students truly learn and retain information. Over the past decade and a half, educators have been moving away from traditional testing—particularly multiple choice tests—and turning to hands-on projects and competency-based assessments that focus on goals such as critical thinking and mastery rather than rote memorization.”

Returning to the American University article, it proposes alternatives to our current regimen of standardized testing “in an attempt to increase the scope of what is being tested, and to make learning more fun. Improved or alternative testing methods are becoming a more viable option in the classroom, thanks to advances in technology and increased research into the subject.” It suggests two methods worthy of consideration and development.

  1. Game Based Assessments: “About 97 percent of 12 to 18 year olds routinely play games, making game based assessments an obvious direction in which to go. Being assessed while playing games can measure teamwork, stamina and creativity, and allow teachers to get a more complete picture of the solving and learning process. And students don’t need to interrupt their learning to be tested, when participating in game based assessments.

  2. Portfolio Based Assessments: “Students are more likely to have a positive attitude towards their classes and use different learning strategies when portfolio based assessments are implemented. The assessments also mean that a student’s progress, effort and improvement are all tracked and measured over a longer period of time, allowing for a more accurate picture of overall performance. And a portfolio based assessment gives a student the opportunity to focus on a topic that interests them, research and discuss their work, and then present it.

There are literally dozens of alternative methods to accurately assess what children are leaning and what they are able to do in the application of their learning. Regardless of the approach, we “can’t be wedded to the old way of doing things.” It takes courage and vision to break with our old ways.

One governor down, forty-nine to go.


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