Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bill Cala: High-stakes testing is failing

As New York state geared up for the first administration of the fourth-grade English Language Arts tests in 1998, along with a group of national researchers, I warned that ubiquitous implementation of high-stakes standardized tests would result in a watered-down curriculum and a lack of attention to social studies, science, music and the arts.

Additionally, we could expect a significant increase in dropouts (especially among the poor and children of color) and a massive disenfranchisement of English Language Learners and special education students.

There was not then nor today one study that demonstrates that standardized tests measure anything other than a student's potential score on the next standardized test.

Throwing all caution and common sense to the wind, policymakers ignored all evidence and adopted standardized tests for grades 3 through 8, and in New York five Regents exams became the gatekeeper to a high school diploma.

None of the tests given in New York is vetted by validity studies. In other words, there is no proof whatsoever that the tests assess what children learn in the classroom.
As we fast-forward to 2010, what do we have to show for more than a decade-long obsession with tests?

In New York, English Language Learners went from the highest diploma-earning sub-group to the lowest. Less than 20 percent of special education students earn a Regents diploma while IEP diplomas (certificates of completion, not a high school diploma) skyrocketed. GED diplomas have dramatically increased (a recent study shows that GED graduates earn no more than dropouts).
Graduation rates have not increased in over a decade, and less than one-third of African-American and Latino males earn a New York state diploma.

Charter schools are burgeoning, siphoning money and resources from regular public schools. This phenomenon has become a national directive (the federal Race to the Top educational reform initiative) under the Obama administration that is not supported by research. In a national study of charter schools (CREDO, Stanford University 2009) 83 percent of charter schools performed no better or worse than their regular public counterparts. Race to the Top has states adopting laws to lift charter caps and tie teacher evaluation to standardized test scores. The reward for lifting the charter cap and merit pay is the possibility of up to $700 million for state coffers ($122 per child in New York). Given the lack of evidence to support the efficacy of merit pay and the proliferation of charters, the requirements needed to win federal funds are tantamount to extortion.

The keystone of this entire movement is the use of flawed standardized tests. Performance-based instruction and assessment is well-documented on the national, state and local level with a 40-year track record of success yet ignored on a wholesale basis ( The time is long overdue for policymakers to pay attention to the research and provide an educational framework that inspires and motivates children rather than beat them with the club of unsound practices.

Cala, a former Rochester schools interim superintendent, is co-founder, Joining Hearts and Hands (, which supports educational needs of African children.

No comments: