October 22, 2013

Authors of children’s books urge end of standardized testing

Do standardized tests undermine children’s love of reading and literature?

Do standardized tests undermine children’s love of reading and literature?

Several nationally known authors said yes on Tuesday, adding their names to a letter urging President Obama to end a practice they say stifles creativity, exploration and meaningful learning.

The public letter to the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, crafted by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, was signed by more than 120 authors and illustrators, including Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, Jules Feiffer and Judith Viorst.

“Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations,” the letter says. “We … urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.”

Federal education officials issued an e-mailed response, saying tests serve an important function.

“Tests provide data that allow school systems to make crucial decisions based on how much students are learning,” said Cameron French, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. “History shows that when we don’t do that, it’s the performance of the most vulnerable students that gets swept under the rug.”

In Kansas, reading and math assessments are administered each year to students in third through eighth grades and once in high school. Science assessments are made in grades 4, 7 and 11. Tests on writing and history/government are administered every other year. Many districts, including Wichita, administer additional tests and screening tools, such as AIMSweb, to monitor students’ progress.

State assessment tests are used to determine whether a student meets standards in specific areas. For the past 12 years – before Kansas received a waiver from some provisions of No Child Left Behind – test results also determined whether schools met improvement targets, and some faced sanctions for not meeting prescribed goals.

Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, a Boston-based nonprofit advocacy group, said he hoped the letter from the authors “will attract attention and get more people to think” about the dangers of high-stakes testing.

“These are prominent people in the field, and they’re saying we’re appalled at what we see going on and we’re disappointed that the president has continued on this course,” Neill said.

“This country’s just off the deep end on testing, and there is a rapidly rising rebellion against the tests. The teachers and the parents and the students are just fed up.”

In recent years, a growing number of teachers and parents have spoken out or demonstrated against standardized testing.

In January, a Seattle high school refused to administer that state’s Measures of Academic Progress test, calling it useless and a waste of instructional time. Their boycott expanded to other Seattle schools and drew national attention.

In several states, parents have allowed their children to opt out of tests, seeing it as an act of civil disobedience meant to skew or invalidate test results.

And just last weekend in Denver, parents and students demonstrated during that city’s annual Zombie Crawl, wearing costumes featuring bloody pencils piercing their skulls and holding signs with messages such as “Testing Kills Brains.”

“Students spend time on test practice instead of perusing books,” said Tuesday’s letter from children’s authors and illustrators. “Teachers, parents and students agree with British author Philip Pullman, who said, ‘We are creating a generation that hates reading and feels nothing but hostility for literature.’ ”

Kansas education officials said tests – including new ones being developed to reflect a shift to Common Core State Standards – should not be blamed for some children’s reluctance to read.

“If you look at a ruler, the first inch is standards, the last inch is assessments,” said Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander. “Everything in between is instruction. That’s your curriculum, your teachers working with students, reading to them and with them. I don’t see that last one inch taking away from what teachers and students do every day.”

Neuenswander said new tests being developed as part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will be different – and more meaningful – than ones Kansas schools have used in the past.

Previous tests have featured only multiple-choice questions, he said. New tests will have some “technology-enhanced” items that require students to drag and drop items into correct categories, plot information onto a graph or even fill and manipulate virtual “beakers” to demonstrate understanding of science concepts.

“The (new) assessment not only will hold schools accountable, but it will also be able to provide the teacher even more information about where each child is at,” he said. “What’s the depth of their knowledge? Can they use the data? Can they defend it? When they come up with an answer, can they explain it? … They engage the student at a much deeper level.”

Examples of some of the new test questions are available as part of a practice test on the Smarter Balanced consortium’s website,

As part of a field test this spring, about 10 percent of Kansas students being tested – about 9,200 students in various grades – will be given a test in the new format. The rest will take a “transitional test” being developed by the University of Kansas’ Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, Neuenswander said.

Opponents of standardized testing say more schools should opt for “performance-based assessments” over computerized multiple-choice exams. Neill cited 28 schools that make up the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which employs literary essays, original science experiments, research papers and oral arguments to assess student performance.

“There are ways to do this,” Neill said. “If we look internationally, there’s no other country that tests like the United States. No other country is using test scores to judge teachers.

“We’re hoping the authors’ letter will add more momentum to this rising opposition to testing that we hope will lead to a dramatic cutback in testing and a lowering of the stakes.”

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