Does high stakes testing lead to drill and kill, aka, poor instructional practices or is testing necessary to provide accountability and assure equity for poor students of color?

Education in New York State is edging towards a crossroads: will the next commissioner and the Board of Regents begin to challenge high stakes testing, namely federally mandated grades three to eight testing and the regents examinations required for high school graduation, or, will the supporters of equity for poor children of color fight to retain testing for accountability purposes and challenge inequitable funding across the state?

On one side the opt-out supporters: parents and advocates from high wealth predominantly white schools and districts, advocates, and some members of the Board of Regents, on the other Michael Rebell and other advocates urging reform of state funding formula that are among the most inequitable in the nation as well as civil rights organizations arguing that only through testing can schools and school districts be held accountable for disparate outcomes.

Testing has a long, long history; the regents examinations began in the nineteenth century and were effectively the tracking tool for the worlds of college or work. The majority of students did not take regents exams, they took much lower level competence tests and received a local diploma, In my school, generally looked upon as a high achieving school only a quarter of students received a regents diploma. In the early 2000’s I was on a Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) team at Taft High School in the Bronx, an all minority school with 2000 plus students, I asked, “How many students received a regent diploma?” The answer was five. I said “5%?” No, five.

The students earning a regents diploma were overwhelmingly white, the students earning a local diploma overwhelmingly students of color; a parallel to the current testing to select students for the specialized high schools.

In 1996 the Board of Regents began the phase-out of the dual diplomas, a move to a single regents diploma. It took ten years.

Will the elimination of the regents diploma return to a dual track? Will accountability fade away?   Will passing courses without exit exams sacrifice rigor for higher graduation rates? How do you account for inter-rater reliability? Will a diploma in Scarsdale mean the same as a diploma in Buffalo?

The reason why we have annual grade three to eight testing is that the leading civil rights organizations in the nation fought to include testing in the successor to No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Wade Henderson, the leader of the Leadership Coalition for Civil Rights, an organization representing over 200 civil rights organizations argued that ESSA was a civil rights law.

Wade Henderson.

“Children facing the greatest barriers to their success like Black children and children from low-income communities need and deserve schools that educate all children well. They also deserve to know that the federal government will still hold states and school districts responsible if schools are not doing well or need help to improve.”

While I’m sure David Bloomfield, a highly regarded CUNY professor,  agrees with Henderson’s comments he also has grave doubts about high stakes testing, in a twitter post,

“High-stakes tests may not be high-stakes education. We’ve been beset by drill-and-kill test prep. It may be that exit exams actually are educationally deficient. That needs to be the question that the @NYSEDNews Regents study”

ESSA requires a 95% participation rate for each school, and, Fairtest an anti-testing organization reports how the law deals with the 95% participation rate requirement.

 “The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires that states assess 95% of all students, and 95% of each “subgroup” in every school with federally mandated annual state tests in English and math. It says that in calculating average school test scores, a school must include in the denominator the greater of either all test takers, or 95% of eligible test takers. If more than 5% of students are not tested, the lowest possible score will be assigned to non-test takers beyond 5%. This reduces the average score for such schools. In addition, ESSA says each state must, in its plan for ESSA implementation, “Provide a clear and understandable explanation of how the State will factor the requirement…into the statewide accountability system.”

States have responded in a variety of ways. A few have tried to avoid implementing this policy, but the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) has not approved such plans. In general, states have decided to do one of three things:

  1. Compile two lists of schools, one with the 95%+ denominator and one with only students who took the test. The intent seems to be to use the latter in deciding which schools receive interventions, but states taking this position have been vague about what they will actually do. It seems they don’t want to penalize districts in which parents choose to opt out, nor do they want to distribute ESSA improvement funds to districts that have low scores solely due to opting out. (States must provide support or intervention to schools that perform poorly; see  
  2. Require districts with low participation to develop a plan to increase the number of test-takers. Some of these states may employ differing interventions based on whether the low rating is due to opting out or actual low scores.
  3. Add penalties for districts that opt out, such as lowering the school a level on the state’s ratings, on top of any lowering caused by not meeting the 95% requirement. This further penalizes schools for the actions of parents and students.

In all of this, some states are ignoring their own laws explicitly stating that parents can opt their children out, policies supported in ESSA itself. They are declaring, in effect, that you can opt out but we will penalize your school if you do”

New York State has walked a thin line, on one hand complying with the law, on the other going through the motions of requiring compliance plans without any teeth.

Opt-Out advocates are far from pacified, they applauded the resignation of Commissioner Elia and call for the appointment of a commissioner who will directly challenge the law; however, the feds could punish the state through withholding federal funds. (Read article here and here).

“Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government has the right to impose various sanctions on states that fail to ensure all students are tested, including withholding Title I funds, which go to schools based on their numbers of poor students. Under the same law, the state itself can withhold funds from districts or schools that do not have sufficient numbers of students tested. The federal government has never imposed such a punishment.”

If the feds did withhold federal dollars the schools that would be impacted are high poverty schools not the opt-out schools.

Bubbling just under the surface is the question of inequitable funding, New York State, a state that relies on property taxes, leads the nation in the unfairness of funding. Michael Rebell has challenged and continues to challenge the school funding formula. Governor Cuomo has chimed in also pointing to the wide district to district funding disparities.

 “New Yorkers have the right to know how much is being spent at their school, and for too long these decisions were being made in the dark,” Governor Cuomo said“When we understand where the money actually goes, we can begin to address funding inequalities and ensure every child gets the best shot at a quality education.”

Will the courts or the governor or a future commissioner or the Board of Regents actually address the funding disparities?  Should we abandon property taxes and fund all school through income taxes?  A Robin Hood approach?

I suspect the upcoming school year will be contentious.year

The City and State 2019 Education Summit is August 15th, always interesting with large turnouts of NYC education leaders. A good way to ease into the school


One response to “Does high stakes testing lead to drill and kill, aka, poor instructional practices or is testing necessary to provide accountability and assure equity for poor students of color?

  1. Marc Korashan

    The mandate for testing goes back to the introduction of Title 1 funding. Congress wanted a way to measure the effectiveness of the funds they would distribute. The testing then was used only to compare schools, not to evaluate students or teachers. The problem with this form of accountability is that the tests do not measure the issues of concern to educators, parents or students. They are very badly flawed metrics. A reading of X tells me nothing about what the child rads, or whether the child reads independently for her/his own enjoyment. That is the real measure of reading competency as research has repeatedly demonstrated that students who read more read better.

    When the standards movement created a standard for reading, 25 book or book equivalents per year, we were on the right track. Teachers needed to find ways to track how much students were reading and what they were learning from what they read. There is no easy way to standardize this across schools and districts, but it teachers who did this could describe a given student’s reading strengths and weaknesses and could use that information to push the student to read more and to read more deeply.

    Standardized tests sacrifice that kind of information in the name of expediency, multiple choice short answer questions that tell us very little about what a student can and will rad. Short answer, multiple choice questions are not good measures of reading comprehension as they are wrong or right metrics that tell us nothing about why a student chose that answer. research studies have shown that students reason out their answers.

    It is essential to understand their reasoning, whether it led them to a right or wrong answer, to be able to help the student become a better reader. In many instances when the answers are probed that way, the flaw in the question becomes obvious and students need to be given credit for an answer that the test makers didn’t foresee.

    There is a great deal that can be said about how these tests are created and what determines the difficulty of each question. I have taught graduate courses on assessment for more than two decades, and I stress the limitations of this kind of testing to the teachers taking my course. I sum it up very simply. “S/he who controls the test, controls the outcome.”

    Diane ravitch and others have written on how the choice of passages for reading tests dumb down the material; how the passages are taken out of context and have no personal relevance to the students, and how those passages are often biased against inner city students who don’t have the experiential background necessary for understanding the passage. This was very true on a fourth grade reading test a few years back with a passage focused on using a wheelbarrow, an implement most inner city students have only seen in pictures.

    Ultimately, high stakes testing, with all due respect to the legitimate concerns of the civil rights activists you cite, is in place because the authorities do not want to trust the judgement of teachers. A well trained K-6 teacher, working with reasonable class sizes, Shula be able to describe the strengths and weaknesses of each student in their class, and, most importantly, be able to discuss how their teaching is helping that student to make progress to becoming a better more independent reader. High stakes testing does nothing to further the education of our students.



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