By Charles Hallman
The on-going national debate on standardized testing features a lengthy list of pros and cons. Proponents often cite the tests as “reliable and objective measures,” “inclusive and non-discriminatory,” and claim most parents approve. Not everyone agrees.
Opponents typically argue that standardized testing “has not improved student achievement” and “teaching to the test” learning instead takes place. They believe the tests place undue stress on both students and staff to perform well in order to avoid “failure” labels.
Most public school districts in Minnesota, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, use standardized tests each school year. The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) is required by the State Department of Education for students in grades 3-8 and for 10th and 11th graders in reading, math and science.
Besides the MCA, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) students in grades 1-9 also take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), usually at the beginning of the school year. It is a state-aligned computerized test in reading and math.
“MPS believes that standardized tests and assessments can provide valuable measurement of our students’ academic progress,” said district spokesman Richard Davis when contacted by the MSR for comment. “They are an important part of the learning process.”
The No Child Left Behind law signed in 2002 by former President George Bush originally was intended to measure yearly academic progress in schools by using test scores. However, the mandated procedure has been roundly criticized ever since over its Average Yearly Progress (AYP) ratings of schools. Some saw this as “punishing schools” rather than promoting student achievement.
After his election, President Barack Obama proposed less stringent legislation, hoping to steer away from labeling schools poor but rather providing more funding to move them forward.
According to the MPS website, less than two percent of students opted out of either the MCA or MAP tests this school year when parents requested it. District officials have not said if the option came as a result of the opt-out movement that has taken place in other parts of the country over the past year.
“We…respect the choice by parents to opt their children out of taking a test,” said Davis.
The recent St. Paul teachers’ contract that was ratified last month called for reduced classroom time in both test preparation and test taking.
Standardized tests are not a true indicator of a student’s academic ability, believes Leesa Beal of Chicago. The St. Paul native was among a small group of parents, students and others who viewed the April 17 screening of Listen, a documentary on education shown at the St. Paul Federation of Teachers office. The documentary’s director and writer, Ankur Singh, took a year off during his freshman year at the University of Missouri a couple of years ago to travel the country asking students, teachers and others about standardized testing
Beal commented, “When you have a standard test that says you got this [score], what are the chances, especially for minority students” to get in college?” Having worked for the federal government for over 30 years, Beal vividly recalled when a high school counselor suggested that she go to vocational school. “That’s not what my background is, and that’s not what my interests were,” admitted Beal, who later switched high schools from Central to Harding.
“I was maybe number 30 out of 725 kids [in her graduating class]. My father was determined that I have the best. I took two buses to get to school, but in the end, it was worth it. I did go to college and graduated from the University of Minnesota.”
“I had my own personal experience with school,” admitted Singh. Among his film subjects were a student from Florida who dropped out of school in her sophomore year and later got her GED because of the overemphasis on testing; a former 20-year public school teacher who quit due to federal education policies and now home schools her five-year-old daughter; and a group of high school students from Chicago who told the 19-year-old first-time filmmaker that their school “values their test scores more than their safety.”
“I took off a semester to make it,” says Singh, who traveled to several states, including Minnesota and took the first three months of last year to film it. “I talked to different students [for the film], then I realized it’s like the same test everywhere [but] with different students, they react differently and it affects them differently because of the demographics and where they live.”
Listen also included scenes of an “opt-out” rally. “I think that it’s easy for education to become dehumanized,” said Singh, who transferred from the University of Missouri to a college in Arizona. “It’s so easy to forget the human aspect and how it affects people. I think we should be more mindful of this when we talk about education,”
He also suggested that standardized test companies “make a lot of money” from selling them to school districts. Afterwards Singh told the MSR, “I think the main message I want the audience to get is that there needs to be a student voice in education. Education is supposed to be for us, but we don’t have any say, which doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Learning should not be put in a box,” added Beal. “It should be creative. It should be understanding [content]. If we stifle creativity or ideas, or we basically threaten kids [to take standardized tests] because we want to make money, we are not going to go anywhere.”
“We will continue to implement a testing approach that best ensures academic success for our students,” said Davis.
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