Our opinion: Negative consequences of standardized tests

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There has been much debate over the years concerning the use and over-emphasis on standardized testing in our schools.

While assessing a school's performance and how well our children are learning are important, more and more parents and educators argue that the tests are biased and produce skewed results that label schools as failing. Instead of improving the quality of education our children receive, this has only led to diminishing morale among teachers and increasing stress on the very children the tests are supposed to help.

A veteran teacher in Massachusetts articulated these frustrations best when she submitted her letter of resignation last month to the Cambridge Public Schools.

"I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them," wrote Susan Sluyter, whose letter has been garnering national attention. "Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best -- and in the way child development experts recommend."

Sluyter says it all started with the No Child Left Behind mandates that have changed the ability for educators to teach creatively and respond to children's social and emotional needs. While she acknowledges the need for a system of accountability for teachers and administrators, Sluyter said she has seen no evidence that this method would actually show anything about the quality of a teacher's work within the classroom and with the children.

If anything, she said, this obsession with testing and data collection has only served to force teachers out of the classroom to fulfill mandates that have nothing to do with actually teaching. And behavior problems among students are increasing because of the tremendous pressure they're under to score well on the tests.

"The overall effect of these federal and state sponsored programs is the corrosion of teacher moral, the demeaning of teacher authority, a move away from collaborating with teachers, and the creation of an overwhelming and developmentally inappropriate burden imposed on our children," Sluyter wrote.

She isn't the only one who sees the negative consequences of standardized testing. There is a growing movement of parents across the country who are opting out of these tests for their children.

Liza Featherstone writing for AM New York relates the story of one New York City parent, Rosa Perez, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sophia. Perez said the relentless emphasis on test preparation has overwhelmed her daughter's school day.

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"What happened to science?" she asks. "What happened to music? What happened to art? What happened to the whole child? And what happened to her creativity? They are killing it."

Perez said the effect on her daughter is evident: "The love she had is gone -- the love of learning."

Common Core and high-stakes testing are partly billed as keys to closing the achievement gap for poor children in public schools. But ACT and SAT scores in recent years show the test-driven regime that began with No Child Left Behind and continued with Race to the Top has not improved college preparedness, Featherstone notes.

"Students in poor districts, whether in the South Bronx or Brownsville, don't need this testing regime. Their schools need more money to hire music instructors and repair the bathrooms - and their teachers need time to simply teach," she wrote.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing says that standardized tests can be one part of a comprehensive assessment system. However, they offer just a small piece of the picture.

"Better methods of evaluating student needs and progress already exist," according to the organization, which is better known as Fair Test. "Careful observation and documentation of student work and behaviors by trained teachers is more helpful than a one-time test. Assessment based on student performance on real learning tasks is more useful and accurate for measuring achievement -- and provides more information for teaching -- than multiple-choice achievement tests."

Part of the reason for the over-reliance on standardized tests is the fear that our students are falling behind compared to other developed nations. However, Fair Tests argues that it is because of these standardized tests that our students are not performing as well as their counterparts in other countries.

"The U.S. is the only economically advanced nation to rely heavily on multiple-choice tests," according to Fair Test. "Other nations use performance-based assessment to evaluate students on the basis of real work such as essays, projects and activities. Ironically, because these nations do not focus on teaching to multiple-choice and short-answer tests, they score higher on international exams."

Perhaps it's time to rethink and re-evaluate our standardized testing system -- not to eliminate these tests altogether but to reduce the clutch-hold they have on our schools and simply make them one part of an overall assessment regime. Otherwise we risk losing more teachers like Sluyter, and could drive the love of learning out of more students like little Sophia.


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