As FairTest.org continues to draw more supporters to the cause of abolishing high-stakes testing in the nation's schools, in classrooms nationwide teachers are still preparing their students for the next set of achievement exams scheduled to take place in the next few months. In Tennessee, which will begin administrating the Comprehensive Assessment Program tests to kids in grades three through eight this week, teachers have been giving their students practice exams and going over test-taking strategies making their classrooms resemble a Princeton Review test-prep workshop. The Tennessean calls it "specific instruction."
In Lakeview Elementary School, science teacher Claire Baltz is going over a practice exam in what has become a familiar process. Highlighting a question that many of the students got wrong, she gives a more detailed explanation of what the question is asking, then guiding her students to the correct answer. Once she is sure everyone understands, she moves on to another question. As she continues down the test, students are following along, trying to understand, trying to learn since they know the stakes this year are higher than ever. For the first time, those who don't demonstrate basic competence in reading can be held back and the test results in all subjects will now make up between 15% and 25% of the students' final grades.
Although all states now administer some kind of annual assessment tests to their K-12 students, Tennessee is the first to make it count for students' grades. The increased student accountability is welcomed by the teachers, but it is rattling both the kids and their parents to such degree that some have begun to wonder if benefits outweigh the costs.
"To put so much importance on one test and make it part of their grade is unfair," said Annie Gillam, whose son is a sixth-grader at Rose Park Math and Science Magnet in Nashville.
Using standardized tests as exit exams for high school students is common in the U.S. but in 2010 Tennessee legislature decided to extend those provisions to the lower grades as well. In part, the change was brought about at the behest of teachers who felt that students didn't treat test preparation very seriously when they had nothing at stake if they did badly while at the same time, those test results were being used for up to 35% of teacher evaluations which govern tenure grants, promotions and raises.
"Teachers said, âWe're the ones being graded all the time — the kids don't have any skin in the game,' " said Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, who supported the new law. "They don't take these tests seriously. They come to school and laugh and say, âMy mom said I could color in the bubbles, and there's nothing you can do about it.' "
Although tying kids' grades to test results is one way to align the interests of teachers and students, it still doesn't mollify the opponents of using test scores to judge teacher and student achievement, whose interests are generally represented by the organization FairTest.org. In a resolution drafted by FairTest and signed by organizations representing a widely divergent groups of people who, nevertheless, are united in their efforts to roll back the ubiquitous standardized testing, the contention that such testing improves academic outcomes is called into question.
"The over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability systems is undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators' efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences that promote the innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and deep subject-matter knowledge that will allow students to thrive in a democracy and an increasingly global society and economy."