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Journalist & Mom Humbled, Frustrated with High Stakes Testing

An SNN Opinion Column

Well, that was… humbling.

There are several things my children can do that I could once accomplish easily but can’t so well anymore: A roundoff back-handspring, pull-ups, riding on spinning carnival attractions without throwing up and, as it turns out, standardized test-taking.

Even that statement gives me pause, because the M-STEP test that students in Michigan take is not the test of the late 1980s. I recently participated in a “Take the Test” event at Kent ISD, during which community members including parents, business people, journalists and school board members tested their mettle doing what students do regularly. The test included six M-STEP questions and four SAT questions. Taken on the computer, it is a recent evolution from No. 2 pencils and filling in the bubble sheets. My results? Less than stellar.

In my defense, the test was timed, with just a few minutes allotted for each portion, which really freaked me out. Plus, the test administrator was talking the entire time. I could have done a lot better with more time to focus. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. It also makes me flash back to when my 9-year-old daughter last year said something similar after taking a test, “People were talking around me and I didn’t have enough time.” Now I sympathize. Like mother, like daughter: conditions have to be right or the answers will be wrong. Good thing the real M-STEP is not timed.

A few things stood out to me about the tests. There were no obvious answers that could be identified through the process of elimination, and the test could more aptly be called M-STEPS, because many of the questions involve several steps, just like the Common Core math third-graders are bringing home to the bewilderment of their parents. The math problems require lengthy reading that would easily throw off a non-native English speaker or a child who struggles with reading. “It’s all about reading,” one test-taker pointed out.

Editor’s Note: This column is part of a multi-story package about standardized testing in our schools. Other related stories: 

Testing in the Google Era

Admittedly, I would have guessed on one question involving high-level math no matter what, and I wasn’t entirely sure what the 14th Amendment granted. (That’s what Google is for, right?) Another SAT question just seemed unfair; students had to focus on one sentence at the beginning of five paragraphs of text to get the answer, which would result in a lot of time wasted if they read it all the way through. That makes me think it’s likely that test-taking skills factor into all this quite a bit.

I’ve written a lot about the weight of standardized testing on schools and bemoaned its role in ranking districts and branding them as winners and losers, and sitting down to take the test shed even more light on that. I sympathize with students and teachers who feel like these tests have become the be-all end-all in education. I can understand the frustration of teachers who know how much a student has progressed in their classroom, but who’s still falling short on these tests.

Inarguably, standardized tests, including M-STEP, which last year replaced the MEAP, are a big part of our children’s school experience. In U.S. classrooms, students take an average of 112 state-mandated tests during their K-12 education. In recent years, school test results have had huge impacts on districts and have led to district takeovers by the state, penalizations and funding incentives. They have shaped curriculum and pushed schools to begin rigorous testing in kindergarten, meaning time for recess, art and music is lessened. They have led to legislation that requires schools to fail third-graders who don’t test at grade level in reading.

I continue to wonder, is it really what we should be stressing? I was always an above-average test taker, and usually still am, but the feeling I had at the event was similar to when I took an entire Advanced Placement high school class, earning As each marking period, and then failed the AP exam, which meant no college credit for me. Granted, that was a much bigger deal, but Take the Test resulted in a similar reaction: “Hold on, I really am a smart, educated person. I’m not sure what happened here. Please don’t judge me by this!”

Another thing struck me. What if School News Network received a public ranking based on a test I took at the end of each school year rather than by the articles I produce on a daily basis, or the community connections and relationships I have established, or the education issues I research? What if I bombed that test (which would most certainly include new media trends of search-engine optimization and getting the most clicks and likes) and SNN was rated as “red” and had to undergo a complete revamp following rules set by legislators who had never written a news article? What if they fired my boss because of my test result (like principals can be if students don’t perform well)? Nothing that really mattered would be considered at all. Maybe you would say that they would simply be measuring 21st century skills that SNN reporters need to succeed, but every reporter and editor knows there’s a lot more to it than that.

At the event, test-takers resembled a typical classroom of students. There were the overachievers with responses like, “This was a great experience. I did not find it too much different than the tests I took in school” and “focused problem-solving felt cognitively stimulating.” Then there were the rest of us, with comments like “terrible,” “like replaying a nightmare” and “stressful, intense, painful.” Uh-oh. That darn achievement gap was showing again, and this was among a group of educated professionals!

Maybe we all learn and thrive differently after all? Maybe this, from one test-taker, is a better explanation of the test:”This test is still a remarkably narrow way to measure a child’s intelligence. Artistic intelligence, social intelligence, fix-it-and-build-it intelligence, emotional intelligence, and others remain ignored but are significant factors in the future success of a child.”

The argument in favor of high-stakes standardized testing is to hold schools accountable and to close achievement gaps that are evident between high- and low-poverty schools and students from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. These are both admirable missions. But it’s hard to believe that the tests truly serve as a vehicle to improve equity. How can that even be done when resources available at schools are so dramatically different? One test-taker commented, “Students from well-funded technology-equipped schools will jump and do well. Students with limited access to technology on a daily basis will be at a huge disadvantage just trying to determine how to navigate the test.”

Give All Students What They Need

What can really be garnered from this information, from the heavy burden we have put on schools and teachers and students? What can we do to improve an education system where legislators and the people that are in the school buildings every day have such a disconnect that school buildings crumble, districts are taken over by outside authorities, teachers are demonized, schools are segregated along the lines of poverty and communities fail to invest in their neighborhood schools? When will we do what really matters and give all students what they need, the chance to become leaders, communicators, innovators, to find and develop their passions? When are we going to hear their cries: “I’m not sure what happened here. Please don’t judge me by this!”

I don’t know what the answers are, but there are a lot of very intelligent educators who could brainstorm what works best in the classroom and maybe that’s a better way to seek accountability. Talk to them. Have them talk to each other. Provide them with the tools they need.

My children have become decent test-takers, but like myself, they may one day look back and not remember advanced math or which amendment granted what constitutional right. They won’t remember a lot of what these tests measured. What they will remember is who gave them the confidence to pursue their passions, who made school fun, who listened when they struggled, who inspired them to learn for the sake of learning.

I realize there are always going to be tests, and politics, and demands for accountability. That’s the way the world works. There aren’t simple solutions or magic formulas.

But there is one thing I want for my kids, and I know all kids deserve it. As a mom, all I ask is this: Show them their potential beyond the results of a test.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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