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BOYCOTT DC'S STANDARDIZED TEST For Elementary School Children,
"Teaching to the Test" is All Cost, No Benefit
By Dr. Caleb S. Rossiter *
During the week of April 2, DC elementary schools will give their students the Stanford standardized test, known as the SAT-9. This test and the preceding three months in which the curriculum is heavy on test-taking skills and memorization of test items are both a frustrating experience for the children and a waste of our most precious educational resource, teaching time. Annual standardized testing is a leftover policy of former superintendents Julius Becton and Arlene Ackerman; new Superintendent of Schools Paul Vance has already cancelled the fall tests, and as part of a complete review of testing policy is considering dropping the SAT-9 altogether for first and second graders.
But we need to keep the pressure on. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men." We hope all elementary school parents will join us in keeping their children out of school on the two test mornings.
What's wrong with the SAT-9? First, unlike a "criterion-based" test that simply sees if students can answer questions that are appropriate for their grade, a standardized test has to add difficult questions that only a few students will get right: that is what creates the famous "bell-shaped" curve of scores that places students in percentiles. In addition, the testing environment must be standardized, so the SAT-9 is read by the students, with no explanation by teachers, measuring their ability to read and follow written directions more than their ability to answer the questions. This is especially true for younger children.
Ask any first grade teacher, any elementary school principal, or even Dr. Vance (as I did on WAMU's Public Interest), and you'll be told that standardized tests are inappropriate for first graders and a first-grade curriculum. Many first and second graders (especially boys) who will become superior students later in life have not at this point developed the reading level and attention span needed for the SAT-9. For them, you can lay a strong foundation for reading and attention span in the early elementary grades, but as Holland, Dozier, and Holland said about love, you can't hurry maturity, you just have to wait.
Under pressure to improve SAT-9 scores, DC teachers "teach to the test" for months before it, using mutiple choice worksheets and covering material that is beyond their students' comprehension. For example, in first grade, students are taught how to answer math problems involving money and story problems involving "what happened first?" But there are many first-graders (ours, for example!) who don't understand the difference between an allowance of a nickel and an allowance of a million dollars, and whose fantasy life is so rich that they don't see anything wrong with a story in which things happen backwards.
Children can improve their SAT-9 scores by learning by rote how to handle the questions. Indeed, the SAT-9 company, Harcourt Brace, counts on this artifact, the "bump" up in tests scores as students get used to a test, to convince the public that the SAT-9 program is working. The gullible DC School Board actually portrays this phony "bump" on the cover of its proposed budget, and President Bush recently asked Congress, "what's wrong with teaching to the test?" But teachers know rote from wrong, even if school boards and presidents don't. They will tell you that teaching a subject area beyond a child's abilities is a waste of valuable teaching time, and that the knowledge simply won't sink in until the child is ready for it.
We know the cost of SAT-9 to our educational efforts: $2 million a year, a lot of unhappy children, and a lot of lost teaching time. But aren't there some benefits? Certainly, the test does provide one more bit of information for students in grades three and above, but it rarely tells teachers much that they don't already know. However, DC's real reason for the SAT-9 is not to diagnose children, but to rate, and financially reward or punish, teachers, principals, and schools, based on changes in children's test scores. This is a stunning misuse of the test, which was never intended for this purpose.
Standardized test scores are strongly associated with family income. Does this mean that teachers and principals in low-income schools are doing a bad job? Of course not. And in all schools, of whatever average family income, the number of children testing below an arbitrary cut-off point can increase because students come and go during the year and between years, or because a few children have a bad year, suffering through their parents' divorce or from a medical problem. All in all, SAT-9 policy is in a shambles: together, we can put it out of its misery.
* Dr. Caleb Rossiter is an adjunct professor of statistics at American University and a former member of the Ithaca, NY, School Board.
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