Overall I agree with this sentiment from TMAO – if kids are freaked out by standardized tests it’s generally because the adults in the school have let them down by transferring their own professional anxiety onto students. And it’s stunning that our national education media have never bothered to connect those dots and helped confused parents understand what is and is not, no pun intended, at stake with these tests.

However, isn’t there is an important caveat that TMAO leaves out? Namely, whether the tests are high-stakes or low-stakes and for whom? Student anxiety around tests with stakes for students is understandable and a different kettle of fish. I remain pretty ambivalent about a lot of testing policies in that regard. Yet right now, in the No Child Left Behind era, its critics have successfully blurred the meaning of “high stakes” so that it’s applied equally across different kinds of tests. They’re all “high stakes” the rhetoric goes. It’s become an almost ubiquitous modifier of the word “test.” Of course, from a technical standpoint, any test with a consequence attached to the results can be considered high stakes but in practice we should be able to agree that stakes for kids and stakes for adults are different.

And, in fact, the tests No Child requires carry no stakes for children. They don’t matter to promotion, grades, graduation, etc…Some states have elected to attach consequences for students to their state tests but, thankfully in my view, nothing in NCLB requires or even encourages this. These and similar tests only matter to adults in terms of school accountability and so forth. Meanwhile, it seems everyone on all sides, at least rhetorically, believes children should be insulated from that. Too bad they too often aren’t.

Shouldn’t the anti-testing crowd be coming down as hard on schools and teachers that freak kids out about tests as they are on the actual tests?

11 Replies to “Stakes!”

  1. Well, I’m not part of the anti-testing crowd, but I have to reject the thesis that kids are only stressed about the tests because adults fail them. My daughter gets stressed about the tests because she gets stressed. She’s in a high-achieving school that does as good a job as anyone can of not stressing out the kids. She doesn’t stress because adults have failed her, she stresses because she cares about how she performs.

    Anxious kids should not a deal breaker for accountability, but it shouldn’t be an occasion for knee-jerk teacher bashing either.

  2. 1) Agreed with the above — some kids are just freaky about tests.

    2) It’s a fine line. The students know when the tests don’t have stakes for them, and some of them just won’t try because of that. So as adults, we want — need — the kids to show what they know to the best of their ability, which means sometimes we need to put a bit of pressure on them. But there are other kids in the room who didn’t need the pressure because, eg, point 1. If only there were the magic dial you could turn until everyone tried their best but no one was freaked out about it.

  3. There is one aspect to the entire accountability/testing debate that is rubs me the wrong way. Over and over again you hear folks condition their remarks with this statement, “I’m all for accountability, we need accountability, but testing is not working.”

    Great. I’m glad to hear you are in favor of accountability, but what is your alternative to testing. Rarely do I hear someone actually suggest an different way of evaluating schools and districts that is feasible, timely, equitable, and fair.

  4. What do you and TMAQ base your “sentiment” on? I bet you weren’t one of us who hated and feared standardized tests long before NCLB. I was raised in the middle of Pax Americanna, and I was empowered, taught to “learn how to learn” and to sing “Little boxes, little boxes … and they all go to the university where they are all put in boxes, little boxes, all the same.” I was taught to think for myself so we don’t end up all just being put in boxes all the same, without a lifetime of service and meaning.

    Were my teachers wrong in fearing that standardization would just fill “the Lonely Crowd” with more “other-directed” people?

    Then came Sputnik. I guess you could blame teachers for transferring their anxieties. But it was clear to kids like me that your view of standardization showed “which side are you on?” Of course I know now it was much more complicated, but to teenagers in the Sixties, there seemed to be a one-on-one correlation. If you liked standardized tests, you probably loved the War in Vietnam. After all, why did kids who loved filling in the bubbles think they were doing something great? Now I know it was more complicated but then it seemed clear. We had been told that it was our patriotic responsiblity to pass those tests and make ourselves into Americans who would defend democracy in a life-and-death global conflict. (now presumably the conflict is global competiveness)

    The hard fact of the matter is that we face an ideological divide (which as was also the case in the Sixties, has a racial dynamic). When a teenager enters my class, they have already reached the conclusion that standardized testing is very personal. They are being called the “N word” by society. They are having their nose rubbed in it.

    How much effort should I put into persuading them otherwise? I’m willing to have open classroom discussions, but I’m not trying to talk my students out of their opinions – opinions that I think are basically correct. I’m saving my soap box for a different message. I want them to have the hope, confidence, and opportunity that we had, and I want my kids to have the critical thinking that society allowed for my generation.

    And this is a great spot to remind people of Robert Pondisco’s excellent suggestion that testing should be conducted twice a year in an unannounced format.

    But again, why did you reach your conclusion? Is it just a standard blog argument or just an assumption that, again, teachers must be to blame.

    My assumption is the world is much more complicated and people are much more complicated. Back in the Sixties, I had a simpler view. Even though he takes the opposite view of mine when I was a public school student, I suspect that TMAQ is much closer to that age chronologically, and perhaps in other ways too.

  5. This is Dan Brown, the guy who asked the question at the Ed in ’08 Blogger Conference that TMAO had a problem with. You’re make a good point about clarifying the “high-stakes” of “high-stakes testing.”

    However, teachers and students are in the boat together. If there are high stakes for one, the other is naturally going to feel it.

    If teachers’ bonuses, placements for next year, or jobs are on the line based on how their kids perform on a standardized test, it is not be possible to shield all students from that anxiety or that influence over how class time is spent. TMAO may be able to shoulder all the pressure himself and convince his students that the large volume of class time dedicated to test prep is constructive and unintimidating, but it’s not a truly replicable model. Or maybe he’s one of the fortunate teachers to work in a high-poverty school with an excellent administration that doesn’t place the kind of testing pressure on teachers that is common in so many schools.

    As you point out, stakes for students are a different kettle of fish. In New York, where Bloomberg has made ending social promotion (determined by test scores) a major issue, the stakes are on the students and the teachers. People freak out.

    Whether it’s coming from districts, states, or NCLB, leaning too much on testing rattles a lot of nerves and produce data that doesn’t provide an accurate, comprehensive picture of a student’s achievement. High-stakes for one group translate to high-stakes for everyone.

    There are other, better ways to measure students’ abilities. For one, how about the exhibtions put on by the Coalition of Essential Schools?

  6. I think you are on the right track. The confidence, or lack thereof, of the teachers can be projected onto the students.

    Why would kids be more freaked out by “standardized” tests versus “non-standardized” tests written by the teacher? If that is truly the case (I haven’t looked at the data on this), a simpler hypothesis would be to suggest that teachers are more confident in their ability to “teach to a test” that they wrote versus one written by others which will expose gaps in their teaching. You could easily design an experiment to verify this comparing tests written a department chair to one written by the teachers themselves.

    For most kids, the standardized tests are the low stakes ones. They are not the ones that show up on your report card.

    The best educational experience I have had was defined by good testing. If you use pre-testing and post-testing on a topic level, you can a) measure progress versus the quality of the students you were given, b)let kids skip over topics they have already mastered, and c) let kids stay on topics it’s taking them longer to master. Without testing you get d) none of the above.

    The future of education is going to be more individualized and specialized for each student, testing is key to making that work.

  7. There’s a great Alfie Kohn article about the responsibility of each level of the school system to shield those below from the intense pressures that come from high-stakes testing. Kohn is more extremely-anti-test than many people out there, but I think his overall point is powerful. Principals should be absorbing as much pressure as possible and communicating calm confidence to their teachers, who should further absorb pressure and communicate calm confidence to their students. In the end, it is when we know something is important but are not shaken up, when we are encouraged to have faith in our own ability and preparation, that we perform best. Same with kids.

  8. Dan writes: “TMAO may be able to shoulder all the pressure himself and convince his students that the large volume of class time dedicated to test prep is constructive and unintimidating, but it’s not a truly replicable model.”

    This is, of course, only one model, only one way to respond to the test-kids mandate inherent in NCLB. It is not the only option available, not the only option utilized, not the only option in play to maximize student performance. If adults — on any level of the system — choose to implement these faulty, flawed, or ineffective responses, how do we fail to acknowledge adult culpability in those choices? How do we, with any justification, place blame on the federal mandate, when it’s really the response to the mandate that is causing the problems?

  9. This is hands down one of the most odd thesis on why standardized testing fails. Are you serious? Adults are to blame, because their old hang ups about testing scare the kids into poor test results.

  10. I believe it is how the standardized tests are viewed. I have witnessed some teachers so nervous about the students’ performance that they teach to the test. They verbally remind the students that if they do not pass, they fail the grade level. The intensity of the demeanor of the teachers do displace to the children. The children in turn are anxious and not enjoying school. I believe in accountability for both teachers and students; I also believe the view of tests/assessments ought to be seen as a tool for guiding instruction.

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