Love them or hate them, standardized tests in public schools are drawing heat from groups of parents and educators, from New York to Seattle. This was the topic for discussion – or debate – at a recent conference hosted by Education Writers Association. I was honored to attend and share my two cents, along with Mary Cathryn Ricker from the American Federation of Teachers, Robert Pondiscio from the Fordham Institute, and Bob Schaeffer from FairTest. We were expertly moderated by Eric Gorski from Chalkbeat.

I think the plan was for the panel to be evenly split between those of us who support testing and those who don’t.

Presumably Shaeffer and Ricker were supposed to be the anti-testers, and Pondiscio was to join me as a pro-tester.

That only partially worked out.

Shaeffer was first to make his point: high-stakes testing has spurred a culture of death by a million tests. We should remove the stakes from testing, and shift away from standardized tests.

He offered these three goals for the opt-out “movement”:

Reduce the volume of testing in public schools

Decouple test results from high-stakes decisions about students, teachers, or schools

Create new forms of assessment and accountability

For her part, Ricker was more moderate overall.

She said much of the concern about over-testing has been addressed in the Every Student Succeeds Act, and she sees a lot of collaborative work happening to recreate assessments. This is a time where educators and communities are seizing the new possibilities to get things right.

She said: “There is a moment right now where we have seen some addressing of assessments…I think one question is ‘how will you make use of this reset?'”

Pondiscio said he is cautiously supportive of testing with two important caveats.

First, even though he thinks the “moral authority” of the education reform movement stems from data gathered through testing, he absolutely respects a parents right to opt-out. It would be hypocrisy for school reformers to say they support “choice,” but not the choice to refuse tests in schools.

Second, he believes we misunderstand the research on reading. It can’t be measured by standardized testing in the way we do with math because the way reading works doesn’t lend itself to year-over-year testing. It is fluid, and not skill-based or time constrained.

While we all mostly got along, there was one moment of drama.

Shaeffer was annoyed by my demand that data testing provide civil rights groups to monitor educational progress of the marginalized, combined with my anecdotes about my experience with school testing as a Minnesota parent. Data is different than stories he barked.

The story I told was this: My kids’ teachers explained to my wife and I how testing will work in our neighborhood school this year. My 3rd grader will likely finish in 45 minutes and his school will have the results the same day. It’s a far cry from the hysterical accounts of endless mandated testing I often hear about. I value the results we get as a parent and community member.

Apparently that story isn’t a hit with FairTest crusaders who need us to believe all of our kids are in testing mills.

It was a good chat and I was blessed to participate.

Please listen to the whole discussion for yourself:

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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