Two Views: Standardized Testing in Delaware

These two op-ed columns were published in the Sunday, March 15 edition of The News Journal

Standardized Testing Divides Us, Let’s Unite

By Rep. Sean Matthews

There are many ways to talk about the role standardized testing plays in our public schools, but there’s one question that we have to answer before we can debate the issue: Do these tests make our students smarter, more capable and more prepared to lead successful lives?

After decades of testing at all levels, with different standards, methods, benchmarks and outcomes, the answer to that question is not what we thought it would be. Overwhelming numbers of scholars, parents, statisticians and legislators are starting to realize, with evidence, that standardized testing and the policies that flow from testing are doing more harm than good.

Over the next three months, students in Delaware’s charter and traditional community schools will be asked to take a standardized test called the Smarter Balanced Assessment. The stated goal of this test is to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in our educational system.

But that’s not the whole story. Most standardized tests are designed by for-profit companies that market their materials to states, which are required by federal law to test public school students in return for federal funding. Under this business relationship, the best interests of the testing firm are not aligned with the best interests of students, teachers and schools. Instead, there is great incentive to make students and their educators look they’re “failing” so that these same firms can offer their own branded “reforms” and “solutions” to states and districts, for a worthy fee.

It’s a marvel of modern marketing. The testing firms control both the supply and demand for their products. These companies win when more students “fail” the test. Our students, schools, districts and state education agencies have become profit centers for these corporations.

In turn, those companies put some of their profits to work in Washington, D.C., hiring lobbyists to make sure the federal government doubles down on standardized testing requirements.

How did we get here? In the aftermath of the economic collapse of 2008, the federal Department of Education approached cash-strapped states with a proposition: We’ll offer you federal money to keep your education budgets solvent, but only if you agree to the conditions set forth in our newest federal program, Race to the Top (RTTT).

After Delaware “won” a substantial RTTT grant, local districts immediately raised concerns about the strings attached to the money when it came to achievement standards, evaluation of teachers, and local control over schools. In the years since Delaware implemented its RTTT policies statewide, we have seen these concerns deepen and multiply, with standardized testing at the heart of them all.

Look at the Red Clay and Christina school districts, which both cover larger geographic areas. Their suburban elementary schools “excel” at the tests, while their city schools “struggle.” The teachers in these districts go to the same specialized trainings, use the same high-quality instructional and technology resources, and are overseen by the same district administrators, yet the vastly different outcomes persist.

Unless we choose to believe that the hundreds of teachers who work in city schools care less about their students than their colleagues in the suburbs, we must acknowledge that poverty, not personnel, is creating the divide in these school systems.

Standardized tests widen this divide, labeling poor students and their schools as “failing” without offering a real solution to the underlying problem that causes the division.

It’s easy to label a school “failing” based solely on test scores. It’s easy to create new schools that use enrollment preferences and “counseling out” techniques to weed out at-risk students. But it’s difficult to fix endemic poverty and lagging parental involvement. We need to do the hard work.

Lastly, I ask that you talk to a teacher or principal you know, someone who works in schools each day. Ask them if the manner in which standardized tests are used today is best for students. Many of these teachers will tell you that the path we are on is wrong for kids. We want our teachers to teach and our students to learn, free from the threat of being branded as failures, losing their jobs or losing their schools.  

It’s time for a change and that change starts with two things: 1) Parents need to force a conversation by exercising their right to opt their students out of the Smarter Balanced test; and 2) We need to form a team of experienced Delaware teachers and administrators who can help us correct our course and put us on a path towards a workable, Delaware-centric plan for success for all of our students.

Sean Matthews is a teacher and represents the 10th District in the Delaware House of Representatives, which includes the communities of Claymont and Talleyville.

Opting Out Is Not A Viable Option

By Rep. Earl Jaques

I will come right out and say it: I do not agree with the movement for parents to opt their children out from standardized testing. I have several reasons for that, but I want acknowledge that while I don’t agree, I understand why some parents, teachers and advocates are pushing for this. They are frustrated by a system that does not function as well as it should, with different versions of tests seemingly being rolled out every couple years and students and schools being labeled as failing when that might not reflect the entire picture.

These are all valid concerns, and whether you believe that opt-out is viable or not, we all share the same common goals: We want our children to be successful, and for that to happen, we need to ensure that our schools are functioning well and our teachers have the resources they need to educate their students. I believe that standardized testing plays an important role in this.

Is there too much testing? Absolutely. But while much of the focus on standardized testing is on the federally required tests, a sizable amount is state or district-administered. That is why I joined with Governor Markell Thursday calling for a comprehensive review of all state/district testing and assessment. I have asked Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, a former teacher, and Rep. Sean Matthews, a current teacher, to be part of that study group. I believe this could result in the biggest change and eliminate much of the pressure our teachers, students and parent are feeling today regarding testing. 

I recently had the pleasure to attend a forum of the past “Teacher of the Year” winners. During that forum, I was able to ask several of them what they thought of the Smarter Balanced test. Each one stated that they like the test and believe we should keep it. That is not to say there aren’t teachers who are frustrated with the assessment, but it is not a universally held opinion.

We must remember that the Smarter Balanced assessment is supposed to be a measuring stick – not a whip to induce pain on our children and teachers. When I graduated from high school I had to compete with children from within our state. But today. our children compete against children across our nation – and even globally – for jobs and schooling opportunities.

We need a means to see how we compare with others. If we use this measuring stick correctly, then we can make the necessary changes to our educational system, ensure that we provide the necessary resources, and above all provide the best opportunities for each and every child to succeed. One way to improve upon the existing system is to create a method to evaluate these results to make them more informative.

That is how we should be addressing the concerns we are facing with standardized testing – by tackling the problems we perceive head-on.

The idea of “opting out” sounds appealing to some parents. Removing their child from testing is a form of protest and a way for them to take ownership of the situation. But consider the side effects. Imagine a class of 25 students where five “opt out” of the tests. What message does that send to the other 20 children who have to take the test?

How does that teacher convince students that the tests are important if a segment of the class has said they’re not worth taking? It becomes that much more difficult to keep students focused on taking the assessment, which also will be part of that teacher’s evaluation process. Less children taking the test means other children will need to do better to reflect positively on the teacher. That’s not fair to our hard-working teachers.

To be clear, I do not support test scores being part of the teacher’s evaluation system. I have joined my colleagues in requesting an additional year be added before we allow test scores to be part of the teacher evaluation system as part of our state’s ESEA waiver process.

Lastly, the consequences of opt-out policies remain largely unknown. In other states where opt-out policies are in place, opt-out rates are far from uniform across demographic groups, which could compromise the data we receive from the tests and jeopardize our federal Title I funding.

I sympathize with those parents, teachers and advocates who have grievances with our current standardized testing system, and I am committed to working with all stakeholders to tackle this problem to benefit our children and grandchildren. We disagree on the “opt-out” method, but we are heading toward the same goal.

Earl Jaques chairs the House Education Committee and represents the 27th District in the Delaware House of Representatives, which includes Glasgow and surrounding communities.