(Reuters) - A backlash against high-stakes standardized testing is sweeping through U.S. school districts as parents, teachers, and administrators protest that the exams are unfair, unreliable and unnecessarily punitive - and even some longtime advocates of testing call for changes.
The objections come even as federal and state authorities pour hundreds of millions of dollars into developing new tests, including some for children as young as 5.
In a growing number of states, scores on standardized tests weigh heavily in determining whether an 8-year-old advances to the next grade with her classmates; whether a teen can get his high school diploma; which teachers keep their jobs; how much those teachers are paid; and even which public schools are shut down or turned over to private management.
Parents frustrated by the system say they’re not against all standardized tests but resent the many hours their kids spend filling in multiple-choice bubbles and the wide-ranging consequence that poor scores carry. They say the testing regime piles stress on children and wastes classroom time. In elementary schools, they protest that a laser focus on the subjects tested, mostly math and reading, crowds out science, social studies and the arts. In high schools, they’re fighting standardized exams that can determine a student’s course grade in subjects from geometry to world history.
“I see frustration and bitterness among parents growing by leaps and bounds,” said Leonie Haimson, a mother who runs Class Size Matters, an advocacy group in New York City that pushes for reduced testing and smaller class sizes. “What parents are saying is, ‘Enough is enough.’”
More than 500 school boards in Texas have passed resolutions demanding a reduced focus on high-stakes standardized tests. So have several big school districts in Florida, including Broward County, the sixth-largest district in the United States. Parents in northwest Washington state organized a boycott this spring and kept hundreds of children out of state exams.
And in New York City last week, several hundred parents and children rallied outside the offices of Pearson Education, a division of Pearson Plc, the nation’s largest testing company. To the jaunty accompaniment of a marching band, the protesters chanted, “More teaching, less testing” and “One, two, three, four ... Kids are not a test score.”
Pearson’s North American Education division, which last year reported sales of 2.6 billion British pounds ($4.03 billion) and operating profit of 493 million pounds, up 5 percent from 2010, designs tests for many U.S. states and scores hundreds of millions of standardized exams each year.
Advocates of testing respond that a nation that invests $525 billion a year in its public elementary and secondary schools needs to know what it’s getting.
“Parents are measuring and testing their children all their lives, from when they’re born and we start weighing them to see if their growth is on target,” said Doug Kubach, the chief executive officer of Pearson’s testing division. “Assessments play the same role in the education world.”
Before widespread testing, many schools looked like they were doing a good job because they showcased just their best students. Widespread testing, and public reporting of the results, made it impossible for schools to hide behind a few star statistics. “It’s undeniable that the push for more testing shined light on things we didn’t know before,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Center on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group that presses to use student test scores as one key metric for evaluating teacher performance.
“We fly blind without objective measures,” added Sandy Kress, a lawyer who helped launch the era of aggressive testing as an adviser to President George W. Bush.
Bush signed a landmark testing law, known as No Child Left Behind, in 2002. It requires every public school to test every student in reading and math every year from grades three through eight. The scores revealed huge achievement gaps in many schools, with white students scoring far above minorities and spurred interventions to help struggling kids.
It is not clear whether the expanded testing regimen boosted student learning.
Some sub-groups, such as 13-year-old Hispanic and African-American students, made strong gains in federal tests of math ability in the years following No Child Left Behind. But many other groups maintained the same pace of academic growth - or even slowed down - compared with the 1990s.
Still, states forged ahead with more tests, adding standardized assessments in algebra, chemistry, world history and even physical fitness.
State budgets tell the story of a surging test industry.
Florida spends $22 on testing for every student enrolled in the public schools, up from about $5 per student in 1997, state data show.
In Texas, assessment costs will hit $99 million in 2014-15, the state projects.
In Pennsylvania, where student enrollment in public schools is declining, the cost of testing has quintupled in the last 15 years, even after adjusting for inflation. And it is set to jump 40 percent next year, to $52 million, as the state rolls out new standardized tests for every core high school course, from geometry to literature. The tests count for at least a third of a student’s grade in each course and are required for graduation.
Despite the growth, testing costs still make up a tiny fraction of state spending on education - in Pennsylvania, 0.5 percent.
The tests have spawned a cumbersome bureaucracy, however.
In Texas, district administrators study a 156-page manual, plus a 47-page security supplement, to prepare for a testing season that runs from October through July. Test coordinators, often guidance counselors, spend days before each major testing period sorting supplies and scheduling individual proctors for special-needs students.
On big test days, John Kuhn, the superintendent of a small school district in north Texas, runs through so many proctors he has to hire substitute teachers to guard each school’s bathrooms. That’s a security requirement: A monitor must watch the bathroom door to make sure kids go in one at a time, lest they compare answers.
Security “has crossed over into ludicrous, in my opinion,” Kuhn said. “It drives me bonkers.”
Standardized testing used to be about understanding and addressing students’ needs, he said. Now it’s become a quick way to judge kids, teachers and entire districts, Kuhn said. “It’s no longer really diagnostic. It’s punitive,” he said. “That’s all it is.”
Even some advocates of testing are beginning to publicly complain about the system.
Many state assessments are given in March or April, so they capture only what a student has learned in the first two-thirds of the school year. The results often don’t come back until the summer, too late for teachers to use the scores to guide their approach in the classroom.
“They’re not useful,” said Paul Vallas, a veteran superintendent who has helped turn around districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans and is now running the schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Vallas is hardly anti-test: He favors giving abbreviated versions of standardized tests every six weeks, all year, so teachers can monitor student progress and adjust accordingly. But a single high-stakes test? “A big mistake,” Vallas said.
“The assessment systems are not reliable,” he said. “They need to be more sophisticated, more accountable, more fair.”
Test developers say they put their exams through rigorous field tests and statistical analysis to make sure they are fair and reliable.
But states can set the bar for passing a test anywhere they like.
In Florida last month, a furor erupted when only 27 percent of fourth-graders passed a new, tougher writing test. The state Board of Education promptly, and retroactively, lowered the score required to pass the test - and in a flash, the pass rate jumped to 81 percent.
In Texas, the state plans to gradually raise standards on its new high school exams. For now, though, algebra students need score only 37 percent to pass.
“If they randomly picked their answers, by the luck of the draw they could come pretty damn close,” said Bill Hammond, who runs the Texas Association of Business, a lobbying group. He wants state officials to raise the bar so when a kid passes the algebra exam, it truly means he can do algebra.
“I understand they can’t fail everyone, but they should be more honest,” Hammond said. “That’s what this is about - you set standards and you hold people accountable.”
In a drive to set meaningful national standards - and stop states from fiddling with pass rates - the Obama Administration has awarded $330 million to states and corporations working to develop national tests. They’re pegged to the Common Core curriculum, a new set of standards being rolled out by nearly every state. The standards lay out what kids should be learning from ages 5 through 18 to prepare them for college and careers.
The tests aim to minimize multiple-choice questions in favor of open-ended problems that require creativity and critical thinking.
On a language arts test, students might read three articles, then write an essay synthesizing the material. Math tests will ask kids to draw graphs and solve equations. (Even so, many of the tests will be graded entirely by computers programmed to scan the answers for key phrases.)
The Obama Administration is also pushing states to develop standardized assessments for first- and second-graders - and even for 5-year-olds entering kindergarten, to test what they know of the alphabet, colors, shapes and other basics.
“Our system doesn’t know where kids are until their first standardized test kicks in, in third grade. By third grade, it’s frankly too late” to help students who have fallen way behind, said Peter Cunningham, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.
Cunningham acknowledged that all the testing has a downside. “Parents have an absolutely legitimate concern that when schools are teaching to the test, kids are not getting a well-rounded education,” he said.
“But the answer is not to abandon tests,” he said. “It’s to make better tests.”
Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver. Additional reporting contributed by Robin Respaut in New York. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Douglas Royalty