50th Edition, Education

To education: standardized testing in 2011

By Denebola
Published: February 2011

By Amanda Sands, Volume 50
February 15, 2011

From the MCAS, a standard proficiency test, to the AP, a test of mastery, students in Massachusetts are subject to a variety of standardized tests that are designed to provide an equal evaluation of students’ abilities.
In some cases, the results of the tests are essentially irrelevant to the student herself because her score may only have ramifications for her school’s funding—something to which she may be oblivious. The consequences of some tests however, affect students quite personally, factoring into their college acceptances.
Regardless of the consequences, standardized testing has come under scrutiny all over the country.

To College!
The SAT and ACT, administered since 1901 and 1959 respectively, have been questioned as to their ability to properly determine a student’s intellect. They do not require long-term studying because the idea is that, as a junior or senior in high school, a student has learned the techniques he or she will need to perform adequately on these tests.
The more popular SAT has significantly changed since its first year.
One drastic modification was the transition from two sections (verbal and math) to three (critical reading, writing, and math) in 2005. Another change was the implementation, repeal, and 2008 reimplementation of Score Choice—a process by which a student may see and handpick the scores that colleges may view on the score report.
South students have historically done very well on this test.
Although some colleges are rethinking their application requirements, and some have already decided to eliminate the SAT/ACT section of the application, the number of South students taking the test has not changed according to Mary Ann Price, who has supervised SAT registration at South since 2004.
The chaos associated with SAT registration is largely due to the number of students who choose to take it each year at South as well as the popularity of South as a testing center.
(About five years ago, Price said, a couple girls from Iceland were told they should take the SAT in order to improve their chances of acceptance to college, and were recommended South as a testing center.)
For reference, Price expects about 1,100 kids for the June SAT session.
If people are worried that the SAT is not entirely indicative of a student’s potential, its consistent popularity is not reflective of that.
What has changed is the way students register for the test and how many actually show up on testing day.
In the past, students registered for the SAT on paper. Now, everything is electronic, and Price can consult a website for all the information about registering or administering the tests, which she said is “much easier.”
While the number of kids taking the test hasn’t changed much, Price notes that the number of no-shows has dropped, perhaps due to the economy.
The test costs money, and not showing up means losing $47. Additionally, many students aren’t able to take the SAT multiple times because of the fee for each sitting.
But the SAT and its relative simplicity differ in many ways from the SAT II.
Also administered by the College Board, the SAT II is supposed to evaluate a student’s ability in a certain subject area.
At South, students are encouraged by their teachers to take SAT IIs after the course is over. Expectations have also gone up— many colleges require or recommend students take multiple subject tests.
“It seems to me that more freshman and sophomores take an SAT II at least once than [in] past years,” Price said.

To Knowledge!
Many students South know what it’s like to take an Advanced Placement class. The AP curriculum, a fast-paced, fact-packed year of learning (or “learning”), culminates in a tediously long test in May at test centers across the country.
According to the College Board website, “Through AP’s college-level courses and exams, you can earn college credit and advanced placement, stand out in the admission process, and learn from some of the most skilled, dedicated, and inspiring teachers in the world.”
While some consider those claims highly questionable, the AP does have a reputation for promoting the memorization of endless facts, vocabulary, formulas, and timelines—and these are beginning to spur dissatisfaction among AP teachers, parents, and students.
By encouraging students to know as many things as possible for the test, teachers are forced to keep in line with strict curricula and are often denied the opportunity to stray from the material that will appear on the AP test.
More and more kids are enrolled in multiple AP courses. This trend has even caused the AP Statistics test to be moved to the second week of  AP testing to make sure the AP Spanish students have enough time to use the language lab before the statistics test begins.
Taking AP classes is particularly appealing because it offers a chance to place out of many introductory college courses—for a $89 fee.
But Joan Bryant, who is in charge of organizing AP and MCAS testing (and formerly organized SAT administration) at South, reasoned that paying for an AP exam is much cheaper than taking a class at a university.
Another benefit is the chance to qualify as an “AP Scholar.” There are eight variations of this award, all of which include taking a certain number of AP tests and earning above a certain score.
According to the official AP information sheet, the awards exist so that “students may cite [them] among their credentials on applications, résumés, etc.”
There is no monetary reward, however, so for most this serves as a way to spruce up a college application.
The AP exam itself is perhaps the most interesting test in the market, so to speak.
A student can take the test without taking the course, so it is possible to take four or five AP tests in a given year without having an overwhelming schoolwork load.
Since most of the tests feature fact-based material, students who are desperate for a good score have been found cheating.
In past years, students who took the test on the east coast could go online and post test questions online.
The rise of teens’ use of cell phones in the early 2000s also gave way to an increase in cheating on the AP. The College Board then determined that the tests throughout the country must begin within one hour of each other.
These tests, however, may be forcing kids to become two-dimensional learners—grading them on the regurgitation of facts. Or they could be encouraging students to take more challenging classes—with the hope of testing out of their freshman lecture halls.
AP courses are growing quickly: more classes have been created, and more students are taking them.
At Newton South especially, the number of students taking AP classes has risen in the 20 years since Bryant has organized the testing, and kids at South frequently receive high scores.
Some may argue that it is similar to MCAS and other standardized tests in that it pushes teachers to stick to rigid curricula. Does the AP present a danger to the thorough education of today’s youth?

To the Test!
The more infamous MCAS is “designed to meet the requirements of the Education Reform Law of 1993,” or in other words: to require that all Massachusetts public school students be tested for proficiency to report on the performance of schools and districts.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Education website, a main purpose of the MCAS is “to hold schools and districts accountable, on a yearly basis, for the progress they have made toward the objective of the No Child Left Behind Law that all students be proficient in Reading and Mathematics by 2014.”
No Child Left Behind was an act set in motion by the second Bush administration in 2001 with the intention of “[closing] the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.”
This act has led to educators “teaching to the test” by not adequately teaching life subject skills and instead just ensuring that their students can pass a standardized test, regardless of whether the children actually understand the material.
Teachers, schools, and entire districts have been punished based on their students’ underachievement, which today is beginning to be considered a product of child poverty and other household and societal circumstances rather than teacher or school incompetency.
MCAS and other state-administered standardized tests are being attacked for having unrealistic expectations of public schools, forcing teachers to deny their students a well-rounded education, and ultimately harming more school systems than they have helped.
Another debatable program in education today is Race to the Top, a government strategy begun in the summer of 2009 that aims to provide incentive to states reforming their curriculums and standardized testing by awarding funding to top-performing schools. (In August 2010 Massachusetts came in first place and won $250 million in the second phase of the program.)
This program, many argue, encourages schools to employ innovative teaching tactics that have yet to be proven successful.
Education-related documentaries have also attracted attention from many different interest groups. Waiting for Superman, a movie released last October, argues a strong case in favor of funding more charter schools, primarily for urban youth. The more recent film, Race to Nowhere, depicts the lives of students living under severe stress and supported, among other things, the potential elimination of homework.
After years of government action, countrywide discussions, and documentary viewings, one of the main problems that remains is that there are too many moving parts involved in public education—educators, unions, administrators, tutors, government officials, budget committees, psychologists, and more.
Interestingly, students have not had a loud voice in the matters than most affect them. (But how is a public school kid to voice his opinion when homework is taking up all of his time?)
As a Massachusetts high school senior, the average student will have taken the MCAS at least seven times (assuming the student doesn’t fail).
Even the fourth-graders all know the drill: get a good night’s sleep after having done zero homework the night before, come in at 8:00 in the morning to a beautiful breakfast spread set up by the parents, eat your fill of bagels and fruit, and sit down to hear the rules (“Following test procedure your test booklet will be destroyed.”)
Teachers tell children that the test will not affect their grades and that the test is designed to “test the teachers.”
In high school, MCAS becomes a measure of whether a student can graduate. Generally a student takes three MCAS sessions as a sophomore: math, English, and science—either physics or biology.
According to English MCAS score results updated in September 2010, 46 percent of South tenth graders were classified as “Advanced/Above Proficient” and 47 percent were classified as “Proficient.” Only 7 percent of students were either “Needs Improvement” or “Warning/Failing.” Compared with the statewide averages, these numbers are very good.
For South, Bryant said, MCAS results “[force] the school to look at low performance.”
Students who are failing or struggling with the MCAS may have the opportunity to be tutored so that the school can improve its overall scores.
In order to raise test scores and compete with students elsewhere in the country, or in the world, Bryant explained that it may be beneficial to add more science and math classes to the course book. This would mean that other, less test-oriented classes may be cut.
Regardless of how “well” students perform on these tests, people still argue that children lose out on a good education if teachers are required to always teach to the test.
“It is the way it is,” Bryant said on the controversy around standardized tests. “It’s here to stay.”

To the Future!
Students have, and perhaps always will be, subject to more evaluations before they are eighteen than in the rest of their lives. Should the life of a public school student really revolve around homework, extracurricular activities, social expectations, and all of these tests?
The public education community has expressed that these sorts of tests may lead to inadequate educational experiences, cheating, and political battles.
If the point of a test were to determine how much a person understands, perhaps testing would not lead to so much conflict. Perhaps it would be eradicated altogether to allow for more liberal curricula. But more and more, testing today is designed to determine how much a person knows.
Young kids can be taught to solve math problems with a formula—plug it in. Older ones can be told to memorize the presidents in order and one event that happened during each presidency.
The oldest can be pressured into taking the hardest classes, into taking the most SAT IIs, into cheating. But kids can’t memorize and cheat their way to a fulfilling education.
Education is different than it ever was before—the world is different. Now that these issues have arisen, the citizens have complained, the media has spoken, and the government has acted, it is time for a system that does not simply duct tape the hole and hide the problem.
It is time for an approach to education that acknowledges that the United States is a different place than it was fifty, or even fifteen years ago.
We have reacted, we have responded, but we have by no means resolved this pressing issue—and if it takes any longer, the education and future of an entire generation will flounder.

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