Engineering the Failure of Public Schools, Part 4: High-Stakes Testing

By Dave Palmer

Part 4 of 4

The final pieces of the puzzle that shows how public schools are currently being set up for failure are the very many standardized tests students have to take. No matter how many times our representatives and senators in Lansing cut the budget for schools, they always seem to find money to pay private testing companies for the administration and scoring of these tests. Never mind paying for new technology, hiring more teachers, or paying paraprofessionals to assist teachers in identifying and remediating students who are not performing up to par. As long Lansing lawmakers (who have no training or experience in the field of education) can avoid visiting schools to see what the real educational needs are by receiving a piece of paper on their desk that contains scores that show whether or not teachers are able to make do with their ever-dwindling resources, everything is hunky-dorey for them.

In Michigan, students begin taking high-stakes standardized tests in 3rd grade starting with the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test. The test is actually scheduled to begin in October, but preparation for the test begins nearly at the outset of the school year. For nearly the entire month of September, students get virtually no education that is not directly related to preparing for the MEAP test. No science experiments, no group projects, or anything else that might convince students that school isn’t boring, just preparation for the test interspersed with a few non-related lesson plans. Never mind that the beginning of the school year is when students are the foggiest in terms of recalling information that they learned last year. Never mind the fact that students are not given an opportunity to learn the requisite standards for the grade they are currently in or an opportunity to clear the fog of summer. Just as long as lawmakers get a piece of paper on their desk with a bunch of scores that reflect the fact that students are still hazy from several months without formal learning.

Students are subjected to different varieties of the MEAP test all the way from thrid grade until ninth grade, never really getting an opportunity to recover from the summer’s stagnation of learning. After entering 11th grade, all students are required to take the ACT (whether or not they plan on attending college at the expense of the taxpayers), the Work Keys test, and the Michigan Merit exam all in a three-day stretch. Since these assessments are considered so important, all learning for other grade levels often comes to a halt for the three-day period in order to accommodate the proctoring of these tests by teachers who are taken out of their classroom for an additional day in order to be trained in proctoring these tests.

Of course, this list of tests only applies to schools that have not been identified as “priority.” Priority school districts  (including alternative schools which have students that are notorious for absenteeism, behavior problems, and a penchant for failing classes and avoiding tests) are required to administer even more tests, including the San Diego Quick Assessment, the Basic Achievement Skills Inventory (BASI), World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA), and WIDA ACCESS Placement Test (W-APT).

The idea behind the San Diego Quick Assessment is to determine the level at which a student is reading. If a student tests three or more grade levels below their current grade level, they also have to take the BASI test. Once the student has been yanked from his normal learning time to complete these tests, schools are required to take the data and figure out how to incorporate reading level remediation into the student’s schedule. As of the publication of this article, the plan is to require the student to take a reading remediation course that only counts for elective credit, therefore depriving the student of an elective that would be more effective at ensuring them a future career such as welding or auto mechanics.

The overall goal is to require ordinary classroom teachers who are already struggling to find time to assist students in their ever-growing class sizes and to have that remediation count as 10-15% of their final grade, whether or not the teacher has the resources and/or is qualified to provide the remediation. In other words, the difference between whether a student passes or fails a class could be determined by their performance in reading remediation, and the classroom teacher who has little training in reading remediation will be blamed.

The WIDA and the W-APT come into play for students who indicate on their school registration that a language other than English is spoken at home. Once again, these students, who need as much class time as they can get to be successful, are removed from class to take these two assessments over the course of a month. Of course, they are deprived of the learning that is going on within the classroom while they take a test that determines whether or not they are able to learn, all the while falling further and further behind their peers. Guess who will get the blame if these students fail their class because they missed an important concept upon which the rest of the class is scaffolded? If you guessed teachers, your guess is correct.

None of these tests help address the real problems facing schools in Michigan such as dwindling budgets, obsolete technology, antiquarian textbooks, low teacher salaries, lack of assistance in identifying and remediation of students, increasing class sizes, not to mention the homelessness that affects about 25% of school-age kids and the abject poverty that affects so many more. No, it would seem that the purpose of these tests is to further deprive students of much-needed classroom time to actually learn not just the material on the test, but material and lessons that would help them later on in life.

Additionally, these tests do not measure any future impact current learning may have on the student. Not all students register the information they learned right away. Sometimes, it takes months or even years for the full impact of their learning to set in. Yet, these tests are administered in a way that assumes that all students learn in the same way, take tests in the same way, and will automatically perform similarly to each other when given information and lessons in a one-size-fits-all way. The results are then interpreted by legislators who have no practical experience in schools that teachers who not only have practical experience, but formal training in the art of education don’t really know what they are doing.

If legislators truly wanted to produce “better teachers” who can get 85% of students college-ready, they could change the requirements of the teacher education program to reflect that goal. They could require prospective teachers to student teach for a full school year in not just one school, but a variety of schools, including urban school districts, rural school districts, and alternative schools so they can get a real feel for what awaits them as a teaching professional. They could provide professional development and other assistance for teachers labeled as “ineffective” so they can improve their practice and become better teachers rather than just handing them pink slips out of hand.

However, since the goal of lawmakers (under the auspices of the for-profit education lobbyists who fund their campaigns) is to prove to society that public schools aren’t working, none of these reforms have been put into place. Instead of making changes that would actually produce better-educated individuals, they create ways to measure just how poorly students are doing so they can wave statistics under the public’s nose and say “See, what’d I tell ya?” No effort is made to provide schools more funding, to provide current educators with qualified paraprofesionals who are specifically trained to assist struggling students, to improve teacher education for prospective teachers, or to provide “inefective” teachers with any sort of help except for holding the door for them as they carry the thousands of dollars’ worth decorations and materials they purchased to try and better connect with students out the door.

No, lawmakers would rather see public school teachers sacrifice tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of education that is applicable in few other job fields and join the ranks of the educationally unemployed. They would rather see public schools close one after another due to district budget deficits they refuse to help correct, and see potentially good teachers quit one after another all so they can put a few billion dollars more into the pockets of the educational privateers. But, when you as a politician are faced with the very real prospect of losing campaign financing if you don’t toe the corporate line, engineering the failure of public schools suddenly becomes your top priority.