Led by the teachers unions, the push against standardized testing punishes kids.
With bipartisan support in Congress and President Obama’s blessing, the son of No Child Left behind, dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), has become the law of the land. While many on the right favor the law because it returns some power to the states, teacher union honchos are ecstatic, but for a very different reason. National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García writes, “When I count my blessings as 2015 ends, the ESSA will go straight to the top of my list.” Randi Weingarten, who leads the American Federation of Teachers, is also quite pleased with the updated law, saying. “There is a lot to like.” She then explains, “The biggest change is that high-stakes testing will no longer be the be-all and end-all of our kids’ education.”
And that’s why the teachers unions and fellow travelers are so excited by ESSA. The new law diminishes, but does not eliminate the national footprint in standardized testing. While good people can disagree about the optimal level of state and national control over assessing student proficiency, there is no doubt about the union angle. Their leaders support any legislation that reduces or downright kills what they call “high-stakes testing” and “test and punish” laws.
The reality is that union bosses do not want teachers held accountable if their kids don’t learn. The unions see teachers as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are competent. To differentiate between effective and ineffective teachers by what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with industrial-style work rules like tenure and seniority – perennial union mainstays.
What happens when “no stakes testing” prevails? According to a recent study conducted in New York City, fewer than 10 percent of public school students pass state tests. But 85 percent of students were given passing grades in their classwork. And over 90 percent of teachers in NYC were rated effective. Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, sums it up. “The potential for abuse – a wink, a nod and a diploma – is there whenever you allow alternative assessments.” (When over 90 percent of teachers are rated “effective,” while only 10 percent of their students are rated “proficient” on an objective assessment, it’s easy to see why the unions would demand getting rid of the tests instead of the underperforming teachers.)
Until recently, high school students had to pass an exit exam to be awarded a diploma in California. But the California Teachers Association-controlled legislature decided to kill the test and, worse, chose to give diplomas retroactively (going back to 2006) to students who passed their coursework but failed the test. And just how rigorous was the California High School Exit Examination? According to the California Department of Education website, the English–language component addressed state content standards through tenth grade. In reading, this included vocabulary, decoding, comprehension, etc. In writing, the CAHSEE focused on writing strategies, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The math part of the test addressed state standards in only grades six and seven and Algebra I.
Tom Elias examined the situation in the Los Angeles Daily News: “Meanwhile, the anxiety, efforts and accomplishment of more than 2 million students who passed the test since 2006 are now rendered essentially meaningless.”
The “everyone knows we test our kids too much” mantra promulgated by the unions has been repeated so often that it has become “fact” – just like Y2K, the population bomb, mad cow disease, Salem witches, etc. But are these modern day Chicken Littles right in this case? According to Hechinger Report, they are not even close. Andreas Schleicher, an international education expert based in Paris, looked at data from more than 70 countries and found that most nations give their students more standardized tests than the United States does. He notes that the Netherlands, Belgium and Asian countries – all high-performing education systems – administer a lot more. “In many countries there is a test going on every month.” The report also found that, “Annual tests are common the world over. Roughly 97 percent of 15-year olds in the United States said they took a standardized test once or twice a year – about the same share as in Finland, a country that’s famous for not relying on standardized testing.”
More importantly, do competent teachers and students’ success on standardized tests really make a difference? Three Ivy League economists, who have researched the subject, have come to that conclusion. In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject, Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings.
Whether education decisions are made in Washington D.C. or in the nation’s statehouses, one thing must remain constant: we need to have an objective measure of our kids’ progress in public schools, and there is no better way to do that than giving them a standardized test – at least in core subjects like language arts, math, history and science. Parents and taxpayers must fight the teachers unions and their supporters and demand it. In fact, we punish kids by not objectively assessing their progress and not holding teachers accountable.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.