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What’s At Stake With High-Stakes Testing

I know “summer” should be synonymous with things like “lying in an inner tube on a lazy river,” and I’m getting get my fair share of that. But there is just too much going on in education politics for me to close my eyes for longer than a few seconds — and too much going on in the world of teacher activism to want to.

Despite budget cuts, New York is valiantly scrounging together the money to pay for additional testing — now in the arts. I won’t bother asking whether these tests or anyone can actually assess the effects of art education on young people. I won’t even argue against tests themselves: Assessment is a precious way for a teacher to gauge what her students have learned and what she needs to teach differently.

But when we make these tests “high-stakes” for teachers — i.e., tell them that their careers depend on test scores — we give more power to a piece of paper than to the power of the human social and academic intellect. When school becomes a matter of overcoming a hurdle, a student’s learning needs become impediments to be resented, quashed, and expelled. Teachers, who among us has entered the field of education in order to expose the success of gifted students and sweep under the rug students with emotional, physical, and language needs? Whoever you are, congratulations to you — you’re going to have a very successful career in the era of high-stakes testing.

In response to the mushrooming consequences attached to test results, the Grassroots Education Movement is in the early stages of putting together a new campaign, tentatively titled the “Change the Stakes” Campaign. (Join by signing on to GEM’s mailing list.) We’re not arguing against testing — we as educators know that assessment fits into a conscientious teacher’s curriculum. We are against high-stakes testing. We are against using unproven tests to determine the fate of students and teachers, telling students they have failed and, implicitly, that they shouldn’t try again. The tests we use are rarely developed by teachers, and definitely not by the teachers who actually know our students. As professional pedagogues, we can’t stand by that policy when there are better approaches out there.

If you think there is no model for alternatives to testing, come visit my school around the end of the term. You’ll see parents and students engaged in what we call Student-Led Conferences — highly-formalized presentations in which students share what they have learned in each of their courses and how it enabled them to produce their most quality work. Some schools have become so proficient in their versions of Student-Led Conferences that they are considered performance-based assessment schools, and in recognition the state even exempts students at some city high schools from most Regents exams. The designation, and the exemption, means these schools are trusted to assess their students on academic performance directly related to what they learned— rather than their ability to fill in the right bubble. Shouldn’t we be moving all schools toward quality student performance rather than high scores on tests not developed by educators?

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