OP-ED | What Do You Know? Parents Don’t Mind the Tests So Much
The test results are in and, to be charitable, they’re a mixed bag. Consequently, student scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and the Academic Performance Test (CAPT) elicited the usual hand wringing and excuse making among those who bear some responsibility for those scores.
More interesting, however, was the release last week of a recent poll showing that parents don’t see standardized testing as an unrealistic barrier to learning. We hear constantly from the education establishment about such testing (educators don’t like them) and from reformers (they like them). But this is the first study I’ve seen that measures parental reaction.
The scientifically conducted poll, a joint venture of the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs, surveyed more than 1,000 parents of schoolchildren nationwide. It found that 61 percent of parents think their children take an appropriate number of standardized tests, while only 26 percent think their kids take too many of them. About 75 percent feel the tests are a solid indicator of their children’s abilities, while 69 percent say such exams are also a reliable measure of a school’s quality.
So, if this poll is to be believed, it now turns out that after all the hue and cry in the educational community about the perils of testing, most parents don’t put much stock in those concerns. Nor do they think the tests unfairly malign schools and teachers. Why?
I’d say the answer is actually quite simple. Like most consumers, parents hunger for hard data on the products they’re buying. They long for quantifiable indicators of their children’s progress — not just grades, which can be subjective — so they want to see how their schools measure up against others. And since they crave such data, they’re willing to tolerate time spent in the classroom preparing for those tests.
Other findings in the poll will further disappoint educators. The respondents would like to see student performance on the tests used in teacher evaluations and almost three quarters would like to make it easier to fire chronically underperforming teachers.
But there is discouraging news for conservatives as well. When provided a brief description of the program, at least half the respondents believe the Common Core State Standards Initiative will improve educational quality once fully implemented. The Common Core, which aims to bring diverse state curricula into alignment, has been fully adopted in 45 states, including Connecticut.
The Common Core has come under withering attack from some conservative groups, including the Republican National Committee, which recently passed a resolution branding it as “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived ‘normal’.” Ironically, in spinning the state’s disappointing test scores, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy cited the conversion to “the Common Core skillset,” which he said makes for “confusing and difficult times.”
Of course, educational leaders and teacher unions typically object to standardized tests and they go ballistic when confronted with the possibility that the scores will be used to evaluate teachers. As a former high-school educator myself, I can empathize with that point of view. No teacher should be penalized for being assigned to teach the dumb class.
But what’s wrong with using student progress on the tests as one of several measures of teacher effectiveness? After all, if a 6th-grader starts the year reading at a second grade level and is reading at the 4th- or 5th-grade level by the end of the year, he’s made up a lot of ground, even if he’s still reading below grade-level. And the teacher will deserve a lot of credit for making that happen.
But with only a few exceptions, the unions are fighting any link between the tests and teacher evaluations every step of the way.
I know some teachers who think there should be no standardized testing at all except when used as a diagnostic tool for students. But can’t the CAPT and CMT be used in precisely that way? A low math score, for example, is an objective measure of a student’s ability — albeit an imperfect one — relative to his peers. Individual teachers can reflect on their own methods to determine whether they’re working. I can tell you from experience that there’s something that is quite sobering about seeing in black and white how your students stack up against others.
So most of us agree that there should be testing. It’s just a question of where you draw the line as to how frequent the assessments should be and how much they should count. Ditto for the alignment of curricula. And on those two issues, both the teachers and the conservatives risk finding themselves on the wrong side of history.