by NATHANIEL NELSON
Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Education released the full set of MCA test scores for districts across the state. The scores showed a disappointing fact for Winona Area Public Schools — for the third year in a row, test scores have continued to decline across the board.
At the WAPS Board meeting on September 5, board member Jim Schul shared a prepared speech against the standardized testing system, calling for the board to directly come out against the state tests and lobby the legislature to get rid of “high-stakes standardized testing.”
“I believe in this School Board. I believe this school district can become something quite special in our state and nation as a pioneer of progressive education. We are already taking steps toward taking better care of our teachers,” Schul said. “Now, what I am asking for is that this School Board create a resolution publicly denouncing the state of Minnesota’s use of high-stakes standardized testing – and publicly present it to the Minnesota state legislature.”
In an interview with the Winona Post, Schul explained that he has been against standardized testing essentially since its inception. He received his PhD from the University of Iowa, and has since taught for a number of years as a professor of education at Winona State University. Many of his published articles are based around academic testing, he explained, including what he sees as failures of the standardized testing system.
“This is not just a new thing for me. I’ve been waiting for this moment when our MCA test scores came out, and this has been years in the waiting,” he said.
“We need to first start asking is, ‘What do we want?’ The problem is when we are giving a high-stakes test, that’s the only thing the school is judged by,” Schul explained. “Because of that, we realize the best way to increase test scores is to teach to the test.”
This, he explained, results in the cuts of important programs like music, art, and even playtime for some students. On top of just academic preparation, schools should also provide vocational, community, interpersonal and intrapersonal education as well. Students should enjoy coming to school and have a well-balanced curriculum, he explained, and standardized test do quite a bit to curb those necessities.
“To quote my dear friend, curricularist and Dean of Education of the University of Alabama, Peter Hlbewitsh: ‘We have known for years that school experiences in high-stakes-testing environments generally reduce themselves to what is being tested. The effect is that art, music, and such skill sets as critical thinking, creativity, cooperative behavior, and many others get short shrift in the classroom, primarily because such matters typically have little or no place on the exams,’” he told the board.
Schul referred to the MCAs as “high-stakes” testing, and explained that that means different things depending on the situation. In the past, when No Child Left Behind was the federal public schools accountability mandate, under-performing schools would receive funding cuts or other repercussions if the scores weren’t remedied.
Today, it’s the opposite. Schools that perform worse on the MCAs typically get additional resources from the state. However, the stakes still exist in the form of curriculum development and external examination. For instance, if a parent is looking for a new school for their child and sees sub-par scores, they may shy away from moving to the town or district. On the flip side, to help boost the test scores, districts may avoid more elective-style curriculum to instead focus on the benchmarks set by the state exams.
“If we have a high-stakes assessment, the whole curriculum orients it to that assessment,” Schul said. “Our conversations aren’t necessarily about teaching and learning, but it’s about raising the test scores.”
“I think the public doesn’t understand that I am not against testing. I’m against high-stakes testing. It is an absolute misuse and abuse of the tool,” Schul added. “It only measures one part of the school experience.”
But what about afterward? While the educational viability of standardized tests can be debated, the data that is received can be used for a number of different purposes. For instance, it allows schools to see how the academic achievement gap stacks up which, for families of students-of-color and low-income families, is crucial to holding districts accountable.
Instead of standardized tests, Schul explained that he would like the district to talk with specialists in the educational field, including curricular specialists, education measurement and statisticians, and development psychologists to develop a different way of testing.
“I would like public schools to have an accreditation process,” he explained, with tests that are made on a selected number of students instead of the entire school. The scores would not be aggregated, but simply act as a glimpse of what is happening, he added.
From there, the rest of the idea lies in a research center for districts that focus on helping students continue to develop.
“That center would include multiple measures including social and emotional skill surveys, performance or portfolio-based assessments, and, by golly, people coming and talking to and experiencing what is in the schools,” he told the Post. “You won’t be able to limit the curriculum because of it.”
As for the achievement gap, the change in testing would not hurt the ability for schools to be held accountable. In fact, he explained that he would like to see students be compared directly with their peers, going deeper than just singular categories.
“I’d want to be comparing apples to apples instead of what we are doing. There’s not a whole lot of a difference for life experiences for middle class white and middle class black [students],” he said. “The difference is between lower-class black and middle-class black families. When we’re looking at achievement gaps, we also need to be looking at opportunity gaps.”
Schul told the board that it has a been a known fact for some time that students’ socio-economic status is closely tied to their test scores, and that examining the differences in status is just as important as separating data by race.
He noted that vocabulary of students of different economic status was researched by the University of Kansas in the mid-1990s, which found that children from higher economic levels were exposed to roughly 30 million more words by the time they are three than those of lower economic status.
“This alone should cause us to reconsider our use of high-stakes standardized testing as an accountability measure placed on schools,” he said.
At the School Board meeting when Schul aired his request to formulate a resolution for asking the state to reconsider the use of high-stakes testing, board member Steve Schild thanked him for brining up the issue of poverty and academic achievement. “It’s foolish not to factor that in,” he said.
Board member Allison Quam said she supported crafting such a resolution, but added that she would want a system in place to check the academic progress of the district, a system that “can hold everyone accountable,” she said. She recounted her own experience growing up in a poor family, and said that teachers reaching out and providing books and music and art opportunities raised her up. “How can we provide music and art every day to our students, not twice a week, but every single day? Then we will see test scores improve,” she said. “That’s what the research shows us … I’m going to bring this up every time we see test scores.”