As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, James Burns, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education and Human Development, offers his insight on testing reform being discussed by the Florida legislature. This article was originally published April 1 on OrlandoSentinel.com. The opinions expressed in the piece are his own.
On the surface, the latest bill hoping to ease the crushing testing anxiety felt by thousands of Florida’s students each year limits standardized testing to the final three weeks of the school year and requires Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) results to be returned to teachers within one week.“Fewer, Better Tests.” That has a nice ring to it, but let’s call it what is – more of the same.
The legislation also requires the state education commissioner to determine whether the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Test (ACT) align with state English language arts and math Common Core standards. Several states have already adopted those tests to fulfill testing requirements.
That might sound good, but these bills demonstrate that our legislators insist on pushing policies based on junk science fed to them by corporate-sponsored think tanks and lobbyists with direct financial interests in those policies. To understand why legislators continue to cling to misleading ideas that have been debunked by decades of research, we must understand some of the flawed assumptions underlying those ideas.
First, standards and the high-stakes standardized assessments designed to measure student growth may be unreliable and invalid because they can be biased against children from diverse backgrounds whose first language might not be English. These tests could even have built-in gender bias. In other words, we aren’t getting a complete or accurate picture of what children really understand. Standards have also been criticized for limiting curriculum to what is taught, which increasingly has been reduced to what is tested. Quite simply, educators end up teaching to the test.
Second, teachers, students, public schools, and teacher education programs have been the target of vicious attacks that have painted them as failing and inept as part of a much broader attack on public institutions. The prescription, so we are told, is to use those high-stakes standardized tests to hold children, teachers, and teacher education programs “accountable” through a sort of educational hunger games of punitive accountability that pits everyone against each other.
Make no mistake, that false narrative seeks the privatization of public K-12 and higher education through tactics such as punitive de-funding and the de-professionalization of teaching. Why?
Third, politicians and lobbyists promote education as an “investment” that will pay-off like a hot stock. Until it doesn’t. It appears that big-name donors who try to influence law makers can at times be motivated by the desire to swell the ranks of a docile workforce and devoted consumers. More insidious, blaming schools and teachers lets politicians off the hook for making crucial decisions related to deeper overlapping social issues like poverty and other forms of institutional violence.
Trying to introduce common sense to a system of punitive accountability based on standards and standardized testing that is already accepted by politicians and policymakers as common sense is, what educators and researchers have called foolishness squared.
But parents are speaking truth to power. They are organizing in a growing opt-out movement. One of the largest in the state is Opt Out Orlando, which has nearly 5,000 members, including me, on social media. Parents involved in the statewide effort, the Opt Out Florida Network, are asking why students are being forced to take tests plagued by technical glitches. They are asking why people who know the least about teaching and learning are writing all the wrong rules.
Parents and other concerned community members who support equitable public education understand what our elected officials seem incapable of grasping. The problem with testing isn’t just with scheduling, logistics, technical issues, or even the number of tests. The problem with testing is the tests themselves.
Our elected officials, who supposedly serve us, also consistently ignore the voices of parents, and teachers who have to live with the consequences of these tests – testing anxiety, lost instruction time and high teacher turnover.
These efforts seem to be having an effect. According to a recent story in The Orlando Sentinel, the number of children for which the state had no data on the FSAs grew to 20,000 in 2015 compared to about 5,500 in 2014. How many more will opt out this year?
Although it may be too much to hope for, we as a society must see through the smoke screen of so-called accountability. To do that requires asking a lot of “why” questions precisely to deconstruct the common-sense acceptance of punitive high-stakes testing in the first place. We should all be calling our legislators and asking them why.