End of a nightmare?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

High-stakes standardized tests are falling out of favor. From President Obama and Congress to School District leaders, we are finally hearing recognition of the unintended consequences of over-testing and overemphasizing test results.

Philadelphia schools have lived through 20 years of test-based accountability. At first, it involved rewards and some punishments for schools based on standardized test scores.
Over time, the stakes for schools, staff, and students were steadily raised. Punishments for low-scoring schools have included curtailing autonomy in decision-making and imposing a highly regimented, dumbed-down, remedial curriculum. Lately, the threat has been charter conversion or outright closing.

Some key architects of test-based accountability – from former Superintendent David Hornbeck in Philadelphia to Sen. Ted Kennedy in Congress – saw it as a way to enforce higher learning standards in schools that chronically underserved their students. Test-based rewards and sanctions were supposed to force schools once and for all to address deep-seated race and class inequities. Measuring the disparities and racial gaps in outcomes would go hand-in-hand with providing equal inputs.

But resources were seldom delivered where they were needed. Instead, schools were labeled as “failing” wherever teachers, parents, and students couldn’t achieve at high levels.

Schools trying to avert shutdown or charter conversion narrowed the curriculum to tested subjects, primarily reading and math. Writing, art and music, science and social studies all became endangered. Frenzied test prep squeezed out intellectually worthy activities. Pep rallies to hype test performance became normal and accepted. So did both subtle and blatant adult cheating on tests.

The pressure to raise test scores wasn’t limited to underfunded city schools. And the pushback grew – including a national movement to opt out of standardized tests.

Pressed by families refusing to cooperate, embarrassed by cheating scandals, and lacking evidence that high-stakes accountability is working, education leaders have started to rethink the approach. Obama – who like many top officials sends his children to private schools that downplay testing – has acknowledged the overkill. Congress appears poised to roll back the No Child Left Behind rules mandating interventions in low-scoring schools – though not the annual testing requirement.

A new School District committee set up to examine assessment practices here must digest the collateral damage from high-stakes testing and create a very different assessment and accountability system – one that focuses on diagnosing problems and providing supports, rather than declaring schools and students failures.

The PSSA and Keystone exams may not go away, but they still aren’t the best vehicle to ensure individual student needs are met. We do need assessments to make sure that students are learning to read and do math in the early grades. But we also need a system that doesn’t devalue other vital areas – from writing to social and emotional skills.

The District committee should look to its own schools for ideas about project-based and other alternative, authentic assessments to help build skills that students will actually need in their lives. It should also look outside – to find assessment strategies that will have real meaning for students.

In short, it’s time to rethink our testing system from top to bottom.