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Our Views: Exams have some feeling testy
More parents want students to opt out of Milestones, putting schools in a tight spot
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Schools may be nearing a tipping point over standardized tests.

This month, parents in Hall County joined others across Georgia and the nation in choosing to have their children “opt out” of exams.

Georgia classrooms are in the midst of the two-week Georgia Milestones Assessment exam for students in grades three through 12. This is the first year of the Milestones, which replaces the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and is part of the Common Core curriculum. Starting next year, it will determine 20 percent of a high school student’s grade and whether students are ready for the next grade level. Third-graders will need to pass the reading portion to advance, and students in fifth and eighth grades must pass reading and math.

And as with all standardized tests, scores also will be used to evaluate teachers, administrators, schools and systems.

Local parents who spoke with The Times insist on their right to have their children skip them. So far, administrators have tried to accommodate them by giving those students reading time or other activities during tests.

This resistance has become organized and widespread. Social media pages and blogs address the evils of standardized testing, with parents and educators sharing horror stories to illustrate their opposition.

Opposition to high stakes testing seems to be based on several concerns. Many cite the pressure it puts on children, some still too young for such stress. Others object to the experimental nature of the Milestones exam.

But the main aversion appears to be the feeling the exams have overshadowed the creativity of learning by reducing education to raw numbers, judging students only in how fill in bubbles, not how they think. Hall parent Amanda Davis said she feels her son is being used “as a tool to get a statistic.”

It isn’t only parents. Teachers whose hands are tied by narrow curriculums feel they can no longer connect with students and teach at an individual’s proper pace. They instead must rush through material in time to cover what will be on the exam. And school administrators, bound by law and policy, are caught in the middle.

These sentiments reach all the way to Washington. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last August he believed “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.”

The push to make testing the key to student evaluation began with the passage of the No Child Left Behind law in 2001. The aim was to hold schools accountable for student progress and end the practice of shuffling them to the next grade whether they were ready or not.

That’s a noble goal and needs to remain in place to avoid social promotions and “easy A’s” that led to high school diplomas given to students who could barely read. But over time, the emphasis on testing took on a life of its own and became the main focus in the classroom.

And meeting those standards is even harder for lower-income school districts that lack the necessary resources and parental input. Though we can’t excuse the behavior of those found guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, it is clear the bottom-line culture of testing can be abused by self-serving educators and bureaucrats.

So if no one is crazy about the emphasis on testing, why has it taken over schools?

One hypothesis: Money

Anya Kamenetz, an education blogger for NPR, recently published a book that blames the business of testing. School systems spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for exams, and parents shell out billions more for workbooks, prep material and tutors. Kamenetz claims these companies pushed Common Core to standardize fragmented state curriculums, making the paid-for material more economically viable. One blogger on a popular teaching website calls it “Orwellian,” saying the system treats students as “clients entering into a contract.”

With big money comes political clout, which Kamenetz says has turned the U.S. educational system into “a testing arms race.”

That may be an apt metaphor. Political and business leaders have long feared other nations surpassing the United States in math, engineering and science in an increasingly high tech world. But parents ask: Is preparing children to compete in the global economy the same as preparing them for life? Or is my child merely an asset trained by the state to beat China and India to the next great discovery?

It doesn’t have to be that way. When 20th century American students were taught by gifted teachers and allowed to learn at their own speed, they grew up into entrepreneurs, engineers and educators who built an economy that remains the model for the world.

It’s clear testing isn’t going away, but it should be put in proper perspective as part of the educational process, not the end-all, be-all. Parents and teachers who resist the status quo should be heard. The more students “opt out,” the less viable the exams will be as accurate measures of performance.

The answer to this quandary appears to be multiple choice:

A. Yes, tests are needed to measure learning, as they always have, but not as the lone determinant of grades and promotions.

B. Yes, teachers need more leeway to teach in a more personalized way and stress critical thinking and a joy of learning that can’t be calculated by test scores.

C. Yes, society should reward the best teachers and let them do their jobs while fully funding schools of all income levels so they can succeed.

We choose D: All of the above.

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