Keep tests focused on student learning

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The Chicago Public Schools are required by federal and state law to improve student performance on standardized tests, which are used to make crucially important decisions about the future of schools.

Consequently, these tests have created a high level of undue stress among educators and students alike. Standardized testing has become an integral part of the educational system, with sweeping implications for the future of our schools. School Board officials utilize test scores to label our institutions of learning as schools of distinction, excellence, merit, and opportunity, but they fail to clearly define the differences. As a result, many parents, students and educators often become discombobulated.

Schools that experience higher levels of poverty, violence, gangs, pregnancy and drugs are more likely to be negatively affected by the use of test scores as a school measure. Societal ills may hinder a school’s ability to adequately prepare students for tests, yet these schools are expected to maintain the same standards and scores as schools that have selective student enrollment and are located in affluent neighborhoods.

There are positive aspects of standardized testing. The information from tests helps to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and assist teachers and administrators in planning their educational program. Tests also serve as a tool for measuring how well a school is meeting state standards. Standardized tests help college officials in the student selection process. And a program that gives students an opportunity to prepare for standardized tests will better assist them as they prepare to experience test-taking in college.

Conversely, there are some limitations to standardized tests. Major problems occur when people believe that overall learning can be measured by a single test. Some would argue that when schools submit to the pressures of teaching to tests, students are deprived of a well-rounded education.

Teachers are strongly encouraged to teach content and skills based on standardized testing, but schools in more impoverished areas are spending too much instructional time and limited funds on test preparation. cannot be measured in one week of testing.

Rather, critically measuring progress and success throughout the school year is true achievement. Increased test scores sometimes reflect intense preparation that is focused on specific sections of the test, but higher test scores do not necessarily mean increased mastery of a subject or a higher level of overall knowledge and skill. In any case, many teachers do not feel that test preparation will significantly improve a student’s scores, especially if the student is below grade level. And teachers admittedly are afraid of losing their jobs if a majority of their students do not pass these mandated tests.

Principals also fear losing their jobs, and they are under extreme pressure to raise test scores. The unspoken truth is that many principals are transferred from one under-performing school to another. These types of transfers sometimes cause a principal to be labeled as an “ineffective leader.” Principals understand that high test scores increase their chances of being recognized as effective leaders.

Standardized tests also function as a way for state and local boards of education, educational vendors and politicians to work together to ensure mutual coexistence.

Boards of education contract with standardized testing corporations to test their entire school district. Educational vendors, usually a subsidiary of the testing corporation, sell test preparation materials to schools. This is profitable for the testing corporations regardless of students’ testing performance. If students pass, then it is because of their preparation material, which schools will continue to buy. If students fail, schools will need to increase their purchase of preparation materials.

Meanwhile, politicians use standardized test scores to reach voters by making campaign promises to improve education if scores are low. In the same way, they sometimes use low scores to justify raising taxes, to promote initiatives such as gambling or to reduce budgets with the rationale that schools are wasting money. Politicians also experience a win-win situation if test scores are high, by taking the credit and highlighting it in their speeches.

Standardized tests should be primarily used to assess students’ performance. These examinations should not be used to classify students, teachers, principals, schools and parents. The Board of Education should neither utilize test scores to increase educational vendors’ profits nor to provide a platform for politicians. All of these groups have a major investment in standardized test results.

However, our focus should remain solely on student learning and students’ ability to achieve.

Finally, what do standardized test scores really mean? Absolutely nothing. Testing is a way to justify a multibilliondollar nationwide testing industry that is running out of systematic ways to escape accountability for those students who do not meet standardized testing mandates.

Derek Jordan is an assistant principal at Percy Julian High School.