Featherstone: School field tests go too far
Are your children working for a profitable company for no pay?
If they attend one of several thousand schools in New York State targeted for "field testing" next week -- including many in the metropolitan area -- they will be providing services for Pearson, a for-profit testing company that has a five-year, $32 million contract with the state.
These tests, planned for students in grades 3-8, have no purpose other than to help Pearson develop its product. So some parents have sent invoices to the testing company, to pointedly request that their children be paid for their time.
Field-testing raises some novel ethical questions -- should minors be exploited in this way? During school hours? -- but parents' objections to the practice run much deeper than that, and they deserve to be taken seriously.
First, field testing is a waste of our taxpayer dollars. State residents pay teachers to teach, and administrators to run schools; instead Pearson is taking up their time supervising tests for its own gain.
The State Education Department, in a memo to school officials explaining the field tests, calls them "an important part of the test development process . . . Field testing provides the data necessary to ensure the validity and reliability of the New York State Testing Program." But remember the recent hubbub over the nonsensical "pineapple and the hare" story on a reading comprehension test? Children were supposed to understand that an owl was "the wisest" animal because he came up with the brilliant insight that "pineapples don't have sleeves."
A memo from Pearson's chief measurement officer to the state education commissioner, which was leaked to Time magazine in early May, reveals that this widely mocked passage, which had to be voided by state education officials, was field-tested in New York. Given that the state also had to throw out questions on two math tests, the onus is surely on Pearson to prove that field testing actually does improve its products.
But the larger question, of course, is about the role of testing in the first place. High-stakes testing is warping our education system. Because teachers' jobs, some forms of school funding (such as federal Race to the Top money) and, in some cases, schools' very existences depend on testing and test scores, our schools have seen a narrowing of the curriculum.
Students spent more hours this year than last taking tests. That will continue. And as noted by many parents, teachers and education historians -- including Diane Ravitch, author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education" -- schools are spending a large part of the year preparing for tests, sometimes missing out on arts, gym, recess, field trips, deep discussions of literature, and all the other experiences that make it worthwhile to get up early and go to school every day.
The tests also degrade the teaching profession. And with such arbitrary measures, many talented educators say they are leaving to pursue other careers.
But back to next week's field tests. The best teachers, at this point in the year, are wondering how they're going to fit all their plans into the remaining few weeks of school -- there is always so much left to learn. Instead of spending precious classroom hours as testing guinea pigs, students should be reading, discovering math concepts, singing, playing basketball or doing anything at all that might help them learn something.
Some parents in the metropolitan area are boycotting the field tests for all those reasons. They're not keeping their children out of school, but requesting that they be given an alternate activity while others take the test. (A list of schools participating in the field testing can be found here). Since the field tests have no consequences for teachers or students, there's no downside to boycotting them.
Let's hope the boycott calls attention not only to the field tests, but to a culture of testing that's doing little to improve our schools.
Liza Featherstone writes the "Report Card" education column for the Brooklyn Rail.