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Standardized Testing the Waters
There are few terms that invoke more fear, anger and emotion in the American education psyche than the words "standardized test." Its most modern Indiana incarnation, ISTEP+, meets the federal requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2001. See? I guarantee you had some internal response to that last sentence written as "unloaded" as I could. It is another Texan, however, the so-called "father of NCLB" who has unintentionally added fuel to the debate over standardized testing.
Sandy Kress, formerly a democrat on the Dallas school board called on by President Bush to help design NCLB, now lobbies the Texas legislature for Pearson Education, which has a $468 million contract to administer the STAAR test, Texas' version of ISTEP+. Kress caught some extra heat this summer when Jason Stanford, among others, began drawing attention to the fact that Kress sent his children to private schools which are exempt from the reach of NCLB and Pearson while Texas faced a $5.4 billion cut to its education budget. The back-and-forth between Kress and Stanford reveals some interesting perspective on both sides. On one hand, I will not blame Kress for wanting the best for his children and ensuring that they receive the best education. On the other hand, why is he still championing NCLB and its status quo?
Generally speaking, the gripe with standardized testing is not that it measures student performance against broader populations. Supporters point out that test scores can be used against previous years to show progress (and they do). The gripe, however, comes rather loudly when standardized testing is "high stakes" as it is under current law. That is when test scores are tied to teacher and school performance, and when people get fired and schools close. No doubt you heard about the state takeover of five schools in Gary and Indianapolis.
I am not saying that nobody should be fired or that schools should never start over, but consider first that the No. 1 predictor of how a student will perform on a standardized test is family income. Then take a look at 2012 ISTEP+ scores. So what is really being accomplished? Lawsuits, wasted resources and distractions from teaching are some accomplishments. When administrators are focused on those, they can't focus on the mission. When teachers are focused on testing, they can't focus on teaching. High stakes, experts argue, subverts the education mission when teachers are pressured to prepare students for the shallow exercise of taking a test rather than the content and skills associated with the class.
Maybe it's only because everything is bigger in Texas that Indiana grievances have not aired as publicly. In working with colleagues involved in history education around the country and state, it's clear to me that the Indiana education world is in its own unique place right now. Teacher evaluation being a DOE priority right now, the RISE model currently being promoted gives more control to local administrators but also requires teachers to use "the most standardized assessment they have available" when designing Student Learning Objectives. So, in the end, teachers, administrators and schools will still be measured by standardized test scores.
Will the ISTEP+ end up in the state archives someday, or is it here to stay?
Matt Durrett is coordinator, National History Day in Indiana. Usually laconic and reserved, he has recently acquired the nickname “The Quiet Storm” around the office for his rare yet tempest-like outbursts.