The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the tests first, the lessons afterwards."...  ...Vernon Saunders Law

Commentary of the Day - June 1, 2004:  High Stakes Testing - the View From the "Right Coast".  Guest commentary by Steve Klass.

[Ed. note: This article is a response to recent articles we have published about high school exit exams here in California.  The author teaches in Virginia, which has had high stakes exams in place for several years.]

Having read the articles from The Irascible Professor over the past several months, I find myself ready to raise a number of points as they relate to our "Right coast" experience here in Virginia.  We have had our testing program in place for the last six years, getting ready for an in-state system that was established well before NCLB.

We test at 3rd, 5th, 8th grades, and end of course testing takes place many in high school subjects, all testing being related to our Standards of Learning, fondly known here as the SOL's.  In order to graduate (starting this year) a student must pass at least six tests.  Two are required in English (a reading comprehension test and a writing test), one in math, one in Science and currently one in History.  The last test is up to the student to choose.  Tests occur in English 1, World History 1 and 2, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Geo-systems, Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2.  It is estimated that up to ten thousand students across the state will not graduate this year because they have not passed the required six tests.

Innumerable programs have been set in place, all focused on pushing every child through the system.  As of next fall, all tests will be offered on-line except for the English Writing test.  This will allow for quicker turn-around grading, and will allow students to repeat the tests more frequently if they fail.  Speaking of failure, all schools must provide remediation courses for students who fail.  A huge and lucrative market in test preparation materials has been developed, as has a special market of remedial materials.  Curiously, many of the materials are produced by the people who design the tests.

No child is exempt from taking the test. LD (learning disabled), ED (emotionally disturbed), and ESOL (English as second language) students all are expected to pass in order to graduate.  As a result, many courses become test preparation classes designed to get the kids through the test.  Especially at schools like the one where I teach (it is an alternative high school, 90% of my kids are ESOL students between 19 and 23), courses have become primarily test preparation experiences.  We clearly are going to develop a two-tiered system, those who can pass and those who cannot.  There is no form of test that one might equate with the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language) for the ESOL students.  They are expected to have the same mastery of the language as a native speaker.  The main problem that arises is a lack of familiarity with idiomatic language…how does a non-native speaker know what the "dog days of August" might be?  One of my students assumed it meant that "dogs are born then, yes?"

We have a number of computer programs that calculate and correlate the data.  Disaggregating is a term many now are familiar with, and I believe it will eventually guide all instructional decisions.  One receives data that show the answers each student gives for each question asked.  An administrator can access this information to learn if there is an area of weakness in what the teacher is teaching…the art of teaching begins to shrivel as the science rises.

My thirty-two years in the classroom have led me to understand that we do need to assess what students know.  There need to be standards set and adhered to… but I also know that not all individuals learn at the same pace, or reach the same plateau at the same time.  Some of us climb more slowly, but still reach the top of the path.  There is also a need to instill some love for the subject in students, something that allows them to realize that learning as a life long pursuit is a joyful pursuit.  At the moment, what I see are kids who view school and learning as a series of tests, pass one and then on to the next!  They are focused only on the end result and many will then simply leave school with a passel of passed tests and little or no love for continuing to learn.  There must be some flexibility worked into the system, some way to meet the needs of the many without completely killing the educational aspect of education.  Good luck out there on the "Left Coast!"

© 2004, Steve Klass.
Steve Klass is Virginia high school teacher with decades of experience in the classroom.

The IP comments:  It appears that in K-12 education testing has become an end in itself, just as "assessment" has become an end in itself for higher education.  Perhaps the "No Child Left Behind Act" needs to be retitled the "No Test Vendor Left Behind Act".

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.