As I finished my 8th year of teaching (I can’t even believe it), I’ve been doing a huge amount of reflecting on what I like, love and hate about the education system. Reflection allows me to hone in on the things that I dislike that I am capable of changing, whether it’s changes within my own practices or changes that can happen through conversations with the powers that be. I’m a huge believer in “I may not be able to change the system as a whole, but I can have an impact on the system directly around me.” However, if there was one thing I could alter, despite it being out of my control, it would be standardized tests.
“Standardized Tests,” one of, if not thee most, hated terms amongst most educators. What is a Standardized Test? According to Edglossary.org, “Any form of test that (1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students.” Well that doesn’t sound bad, right? Seems pretty fair to give everyone the same test and grade those same tests in the same way for each student.
The challenge is that it is the complete opposite of what students experience in their everyday classes. Teachers have the challenge of differentiating each of their lessons, every day, so that all students have not only an entry point into the lesson but also have the support and scaffolds needed to complete the objective in the expected time. What could this differentiation look like? During an ELA assignment where you are working on reading comprehension, the length of the reading passage can vary from student to student, giving the more advanced students longer passages and struggling students shorter passages. In a Math class where students have problems that require them to complete certain steps, some steps can be given and instead of students having to complete the whole problem independently, they can fill in the blanks. Generally, differentiation could be allowing students to use graphic organizers, adjusting the number of questions assigned based on students' ability and pace that they work at, presenting the information to different groups in different manners, working in small groups, adjusting how students are able to demonstrate mastery.. Etc.
So, think about this, students receive an education that ideally caters to their learning styles and ability all year long, only for the end of the year to come and they are required to sit for a standardized test. A test where every student is given the same test and the expectations of all students are the same (with the exemption of students with classified learning disabilities.) and does not cater to who they are or how they learn. A test that is the complete opposite of what and how they have learned and been assessed all year. How can we expect students to truly excel when all of the tools and resources they have become accustomed to are instantly snatched away? It almost seems as though we are setting students up to fail.
In New York, the most common path to graduate is to pass a minimum of 5 Regents exams within your four years of high school. You need to score a 65 or higher in each of the following: Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, ELA and then one additional in any of these or a language. The pressure for our kids is high and for teachers is even higher. If students don’t meet the expectations on these standardized tests, ultimately, they won’t graduate. If teachers don't achieve a certain rate of students who passed their exam, their jobs and salary could be at risk. If schools don’t meet certain criteria regarding their passing rates, their funding could be affected. The pressure that these tests put on everyone is overwhelming to say the least.
Now think about this, all of this emphasis is being put on all parties involved to pass these standardized tests that are supposed to evaluate whether a student has reached mastery in a specific content. However, the tests themselves are graded on such a curve that a passing score of 65 for some exams displays the furthest thing from mastery. What do you mean a passing score doesn’t really mean a student has mastered the content? Well for the June 2023 Algebra I exam (the math class 9th graders on grade level take,) in order to receive a passing score of 65 a student only needed 27 out of 86 points. That means a student only needed to correctly answer 31% of the exam to score a 65 and pass. For the June 2023 Living Environment exam (also taken by 9th graders on grade level,) students only needed 41 out of 85 points. That means a student only needed to correctly answer 48% of the exam to pass.
I know this leads one to ask, if the standards are so low for students to pass, why is everyone complaining? Why aren’t more students passing? Well, that’s an easy, not so easy, question to answer. I’ll use this analogy: Think about someone building a house on a low budget. They want the house, and they want it to be amazing, but they don’t have the money or time to do it the right way. So, they cut corners, buy cheap material, use cheap labor, and rush the job. While the immediate goal was met, building the house, over time, all of those corners that they cut begin to have negative effects. The house begins to sink because the foundation wasn’t solid, or the pipes are leaking because they used the pipes on clearance which weren't that good. Now the people who live in the house have to go back and redo a lot of the work that was done because it wasn't done correctly or carefully the first time.
That is what is happening in schools. There is so much pressure on everyone to score high and pass students to the next grade that our kids are getting a rushed education. They are getting pushed along and as a result they are lacking the foundation that they need to be successful. By the time students get to high school, they lack so many foundational skills that it becomes a challenge for teachers to teach new content without going back and revisiting those foundational skills. So now we not only have to go back but we also have to move forward and finish a curriculum and prepare students for their upcoming assessments. Unfortunately, what happens as a result, because everyone is so pressed for time, teachers don’t think they have the time to go back and remediate so they just move forward. But y'all know what happens to the house that lacks foundation, it crumbles little by little. When our kids lack foundation, and the pressures push teachers to just move forward with content, our kids crumble. It becomes challenging for them to meet the minimum requirements of passing these exams.
So, what’s the solution? GET RID OF THE DAMN TESTS! If the goal was to assess students' ability to master content, we see it doesn’t do that. All it does is put unnecessary pressures on all parties involved, resulting in our kids being pushed along and receiving a mediocre at best, education.
Feel free to share your thoughts, comments or experiences in the comments below. 😊