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Standardized Tests Examined

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Moderator Gerry House and panelists William Cala, Jay Heubert and Thomas Sobol investigate the realities of standardized tests.

Moderator Gerry House and panelists William Cala, Jay Heubert and Thomas Sobol investigate the realities of standardized tests.

A panel of experts discussed the legalities, policies and realities of standardized tests in a presentation coordinated by The Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning and the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST). Panelists were Thomas Sobol, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at TC and former Commissioner of Education for New York State; Jay Heubert, Associate Professor of Education at TC and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at Columbia University Law School; and William Cala, a school superintendent in upstate Fairport, New York, who has been a vocal critic of the State's testing policy. The moderator of the panel was Gerry House, President and CEO of the Institute for Student Achievement, a not-for-profit organization that supports the education of students-at-risk.

The dilemma of standardized testing is that it has become more to do with high-stakes decision-making rather than with providing equitable education to all children, House noted in her introduction. "The questions remain: How do we close the achievement gap? How do we create schools-especially for students of color and those living in poverty-that provide a high-quality education? Can we save the original intention of this movement and still have testing? What kind of system should be put in place?"

Sobol, after confirming that everyone in the audience was in favor of high standards and accountability, noted that those are not the issues in question. What is in question is, "how it is done," he said.

Sobol's answer to the problem of trying to convince errant policy makers of the problems inherent in the current system is, "If you can't beat them, join them."

"My suggestion is join the movement and get people to do it right," he explained. "Promoting what kind of standards and assessments we should have. The question is not whether we should be accountable, but who is accountable to whom and for what."

"What has been going on is a political phenomenon, not pedagogical phenomenon," he concluded. "The schools are ours as much as theirs. We need to organize."

Heubert focused his remarks on tests "that have significant consequences for individual students in determining if they will be promoted."

Many of the nation's largest school districts have adopted promotion testing, meaning that large numbers of students of color and disadvantaged students are subject to these tests in order to move on in their education, Heubert said. "Thirty years of social science efforts tell us that the strongest predictor of who drops out of school is retention in grade."

The information obtained from large scale assessments, he said, should be used to improve curriculum and pedagogy and to identify and address learning needs. In that way, all students can be provided proper instruction and can achieve high standards.

In his remarks, Cala added that a recent study showed that there is no evidence indicating that retention in grades K-1 is any less harmful to students than retention in later grades. A study he conducted in his own district looked at the students over a 10-year period that had been held back a grade in school. He found that 85 percent of those students were drop-outs.

"It is important to keep up the political fight," he said, encouraging his audience to become educated in testing. "We have to understand it before we can criticize it. When we do understand it, we have to be vocal, we have to write, we have to inform and continue to do that, and we will change minds," he stressed. "Do not accept the fact that 'Tests are here, live with it.' We will not accept that as well as the fact that hundreds of thousands of kids in New York are being left behind."

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