2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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NCREST Sponsors High-Stakes Testing Conference

More than 600 people converged on Teachers College on the last day of March to attend a conference on "The Effects of High-Stakes Testing."

The conference, sponsored by the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST), the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (Fair Test), and the Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning, featured a full schedule of panel discussions, speakers, and break-out sessions.

A panel moderated by Professor Thomas Sobol followed welcoming remarks by NCREST's Director, Betty Lou Whitford. Sobol, the Christian A. Johnson Professor for Outstanding Practice at TC, lead the panel of seven educators in a discussion on "High-Stakes Testing: What are the Issues?" The panel included Judith Rizzo and Olivia Lynch representing New York City public schools; The New York Times reporter Richard Rothstein; TC alumni Vito Perrone, a professor at Harvard; Michelle Fine, a professor at CUNY; Monty Neill of Fair Test; and Theresa Fay-Bustillos of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Sobol, in his opening remarks, noted that while most people are in favor of standards and accountability, the debate lies in "what kinds of standards we should have, who should set them, how we should be accountable and what our role should be." Each of the members of the panel was asked to comment on the question, "What is the most critical issue or issues related to high-stakes testing?"

Judith Rizzo, the Deputy Chancellor for the New York City public schools, emphasized a sentiment that was expressed throughout the day's discussions. She said, "What concerns me is that high stakes are introduced to determine a youngster's future in education without the resources necessary for adults to help them."

Perrone noted that scores are being used to tell the whole story without taking into account the human element. "Scores count for too much, giving too little to the judgments of teachers and families who interact with the kids day-in and day-out," he said.

Another concern about high-stakes tests involves the change it has made in curriculum and teaching. "It has narrowed the curriculum to learning how to take tests," said Fay Bustillos.

However, in Rothstein's opinion, the changes to curriculum and teaching are an improvement for some school districts that did not provide even that much to at-risk students. "Throughout this country, there have been many students and schools who have been ignored, subject to low expectations, whose lack of learning has been excused and who have not had the resources to achieve," he said. "High-stakes testing has forced schools to pay more attention to the students at the bottom."

Neill summarized what many of the day's speakers expressed when he said, "The biggest problem is that we need to build a more coherent movement to address high stakes testing so we can really improve schools and serve our country far better than the current system does."

Thirty-four morning and afternoon break-out sessions looked at these issues and others in more detail. Topics ranged from issues of social promotion to school reform, accountability, legal issues, and the impact of high-stakes testing on teachers and students.

In a session on student and teacher motivation, Professor Richard Ryan, an empirical psychologist at the University of Rochester, discussed research that he has done on the results achieved using various motivation methods. Motivation, he said, is either internal or external. "Research shows that students, teachers, or workers who are internally motivated tend to be more persistent, apply more effort, and have a higher quality of learning in terms of concepts," Ryan explained. "They also have higher self-esteem."

External motivators, such as merit pay, gold stars, bonuses and so on can also improve performance, but with certain drawbacks. "People tend to do what is required and lose interest," he said. "But it changes the nature of how they think about the activity. They will have feelings of being evaluated, coerced and pressured."

One of the studies done by Ryan was based on teachers' reports that they are pressured by districts to work toward improving students' test scores. The study set up an instructional paradigm where an invented curriculum, with which no one would be familiar, was to be taught. All the teachers had the same curriculum, but one group was told that their job was to teach in a manner that would facilitate learning in the best way possible. The other group was told the same thing, but they were to make sure they "lived up to standards."

"There were dramatic differences in the teaching session based on that ‘standards' phrase," Ryan said. Teachers, he said, were more controlling. They talked more and students talked less in the classroom. Although the learners solved more problems, they received more direction from their teachers than the other group.

In the group that was not charged with living up to standards, students asked more questions and solved more problems independently.

When this study was extended into a real-world situation, the results showed that students of the more controlling teachers received lower grades and lower standardized test scores. Yet, outside observers who watched these teachers in the classroom rated them to be more competent than those who had a more autonomous and supportive approach. Students of teachers who used the autonomous approach actually received better test results. In the closing session of the conference, Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota and Deborah Meier, principal of Mission Hill School in Boston made remarks.

"Who decides standards and how are they decided?" Meier asked. "What constitutes good literature, good history and good education?"

She proposed that the purpose of a democratic education is to help people learn about the community in which they are members and to expand their capacity to exercise judgment.

The message being sent, she said, is that the average teacher and average parent are too ignorant to judge what is necessary to become a well-educated public.

What would be needed to change that trend? Meier suggested that the public has to "hammer away at all the things that stand in the way of using judgment well."

In her own experience, she noted that rapid changes took place in areas where the city was behind their efforts. "It can't happen without a lot of support from a lot of different people.

"Wellstone, who introduced legislation that would require multiple measures, not just tests alone, for decisions about promotion and graduation, approaches these issues as one who is intimately familiar with the consequences. As a college teacher for 20 years, he said he opposes high-stakes testing as a practice that 'holds children responsible for our own failure.'"

"More states and school districts are using high-stakes tests as if they believe ‘If we test them, they will perform,'" he said.

Standardized tests can be used to ensure more opportunity in education, he noted, if they are used as a diagnostic tool or to put other important steps in place.

While Wellstone spoke passionately about the problems of high-stakes testing practices, he stressed that, "We should not stop demanding that children do their best; we should not stop holding schools accountable-one measure can be a standardized test, but only if it is coupled with other measures of achievement."

At the conclusion of Wellstone's remarks, the audience was moved to give him a standing ovation, and he commented that as Abolitionist Wendall Phillips once said, "I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt."

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