Greg Taranto: Slay the testing beast

Standardized tests are out of control; let's stand together to fight them off

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I am the principal of an award-winning middle school in Canonsburg. We have been designated as one of 350 “schools to watch” nationwide, not for our test scores, which are very good, but instead for the ways in which we engage the “whole child.” This means we surround strong core academics with quality arts programs, technology education, physical fitness, wellness and extracurricular opportunities such as athletics and jazz band.

Normally my school is alive with student-work displays, posters, inspirational sayings and images. My seventh-grade teams recently completed a cross disciplinary unit on mythology and the rooms were proudly filled with student work. This included material from Investigation of a Mythological Character (research in English and social studies), Student-Created Myths and Movie Proposal PowerPoints and Prezis (creative writing in language arts) and Hypothetical Future Offspring of the Gods Projects (genetics in science).

But not this week — because one of the many ugly heads of the student-testing monster is test security. Pennsylvania System of School Assessment testing security requires that “… all materials on the walls that relate to tested content, including motivational posters” are to be covered. So this week, a testing week, all of these amazing projects are hidden or removed. Even a poster that says, “Expect the Best” has been covered because testing rules say such a poster might “spark” a student’s imagination during testing.

My teachers’ classroom walls are bare and boring. My students notice this and ask: “What have you done with our work?”

Another of testing’s ugly heads is the narrowing of the curriculum. The stringent rules of test security force teachers into many long meetings in which they learn how to become testing police instead of educators. These meetings are piled on top of the state’s PSSA security online module that teachers must watch and themselves be tested upon.

Testing-enforcement preparation also narrows the time available for other kinds of classroom prep and professional development. And while my school does not drop everything for PSSA prep, many schools fall under pressure to do so for months — even sacrificing non-tested subjects such as social studies, arts and physical education.

The beast of standardized testing is taking control of the learning environment. Testing is being used to evaluate schools, teachers, administrators and, in some cases, to determine a young child’s future. Some children are being asked to take high school graduation exams as early as sixth grade. But recent studies show that grades, not test scores, are a much better predictor of a child’s future success.

Our school has been highly rated, but NOT because of our test scores. If you want to evaluate my school, you should have to visit my school, experience it and see what is going on first-hand. What can you learn about the things that really matter to students and parents at my school by looking at my students’ standardized test scores? Nothing.

How did this beast grow so many heads?

When standardized testing was simply a few periods taken out of an entire year, it was not a strain on instructional time and the data were welcomed in helping make curricular and instructional adjustments. As educators, we understand the importance of assessment.

But the beast has been sprouting heads, and everyone can understand at least one of the reasons: profit.

Testing makes a lot of money for education companies. Here in Pennsylvania in 2013 we paid more than $200 million to the company responsible for the development of the Keystone exams — tests aligned with the Common Core curriculum (known as PA Core in Pennsylvania). Our state legislators just approved another five “optional” Keystones in the coming years. Can you imagine the cost to taxpayers?

Unfortunately, the many-headed hydra of standardized testing is not like the mythical creatures made by my seventh graders. It is real. And we need real heroes to slay the beast.

Parents and educators must start speaking out and talking to our school districts, school boards and state and federal legislators. State and federal legislators are especially important, because they are the ones mandating tests such as the PSSA and the Keystones and thus tying the hands of district officials and school boards.

Some groups already engaged in this fight include Education Voters PA, Yinzercation, PA Against the Common Core, the Network for Public Education and Fairtest.org.

Do you think testing has gotten out of control? Please become a hero in the fight against this many-headed hydra. We need more ordinary heroes — people like you and me — to wrest control of our kids’ education away from the testing beast and to restore educational agency to parents, teachers and principals.

Greg Taranto, the principal of Canonsburg Middle School, was named 2012 Middle Level Principal of the Year by the Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals.


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