Diane Munoz said her first-grader has told her that he thinks he is stupid and that he hates school. He feels overwhelming pressure to do well on his literacy test scores.
Munoz is not only a Chicago public schools parent, she’s also a high-school English teacher.
“Most of the time I’m baffled, conflicted and frustrated with how much time I spend, or how much emphasis we place, on testing,” she said.
At Mather High School where Munoz teaches, high-school students spent approximately 12 hours taking standardized tests in the first three weeks of school. They’ll have to do it again at the end of the year. Some will also take tests in the middle of the year.
As school officials add more tests to the school calendar, including the new REACH standardized test meant to evaluate teachers, parents are concerned that students are taking too many tests and many are interested in opting their children out of the tests.
Some parents question how many tests students should be required to take, and many teachers and education experts suggest replacing tests with other kinds of assessments.
Pam Epley, an expert in early childhood development and education at Erikson Institute, said no children younger than 8 years old, should take standardized tests. The graduate school has designed teaching methods and alternative assessment models for young students.
“We’re not getting enough information to make the tests worthwhile,” Epley said. “Even a high-quality test is somewhat limited in what it can measure.”
Very young children are particularly difficult to assess through tests, she said. At that age, how well students do can vary tremendously on a day-to-day basis.
Tests are particularly problematic for students who are still learning English, who struggle with learning disabilities, and who have not gone to pre-school, Epley added. Standardized tests measure what students have already learned and students who haven’t had as much educational experience are at a disadvantage.
“They test skills, achievements, but not potential or how students learn,” she said.
But test scores aren’t valid if people don’t know how to read them, she said. For example, a test may measure vocabulary skills, so it would be a mistake to think the test measured understanding or comprehension.
“Even the CPS tests that are given multiple times per year and are meant to look at growth show a limited picture,” she said. “The tests require children to function well with the medium of the tests.”
Teacher Anne Carlson said she was furious when her kindergarten son had to take a computerized standardized test while his teacher read directions.
She recalled, ” ‘Press next,’ the teacher said.”
Her son didn’t know how to press next — he didn’t know how to read.
Chicago parent Jennifer Biggs said, “Most of those kids don’t even know how to log onto a computer.” Her first-grader had already taken four tests by mid-October.
In October, CPS officials said that the district only required preschoolers through second-graders to take two tests given twice per year. Other tests and diagnostic assessments were optional and could be mandated by individual schools.
Since then, however, CPS changed its testing calendar. The optional literacy tests for younger students are now required to be administered three times per year.
Public school officials were unavailable for comment, but have argued in the past that standardized tests are one of the few means of evaluating students and teaching staff.
Amanda Simhauser, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said that school districts are required to find ways to measure student and teacher and principal performance.
For CPS teachers, 10 to 15 percent of their evaluations are based on test scores.
Critics argue that test-based evaluations ignore factors that are outside a teacher’s control, but still affect education. For example poverty, low language skills, or learning disabilities affect student performance.
Carlson taught at two different schools where students had very different test results.
Both schools have a fantastic teaching staff, she said, but one school, Whittier, was on probation because of its test scores.
Whittier, a school in Pilsen, serves students who mostly come from low-income families where English is a second language. The school where Carlson teaches now is a magnet school in Bucktown, a mixed-income community.
“I think it’s very unfair that my rating as a teacher would be higher working at Drummond than a teacher’s at Whittier,” she said.