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Commentary: What, exactly, are the new statewide tests testing?

Guest contributor | September 11, 2015

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student computer testBy Joshua Leibner

What do the most recent California Common Core test scores mean?

This is a question that deserves real attention, but the initial response is not encouraging.

My last LAUSD principal told us four years that we are just “going to have to accept the testing pill” and get on with the program that would have our lives dictated by these tests. And, frankly, I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for testing than some Matrix-style fantasy pill.

In a commentary in LA School Report, Michael Janofsky states: “The new test scores illustrate the magnitude of the problem because they are designed to prepare students for a successful life beyond high school.”

A variation of this belief has circulated throughout the very start of standardized testing, starting, of course, with the IQ test. The tests do not prepare students for a successful life. A million other factors contribute to “a successful life,” but I would rank a test at the very bottom.

The meaning of these results is, in reality, political. First, using new and literally inscrutable tests, administered in a new and for many students inscrutable format, school “reformers” hope to use these bad results to create yet another “sense of urgency” for reform solutions. Which, to no one’s surprise at this point, will involve doubling down on the skills needed to do well on these tests: standardized test preparation and computerized pedagogy.

Hence, the second political meaning of these scores: backlash. LAUSD and the state are now engaged in a “Don’t panic” campaign to staunch a massive Opt Out movement from happening here. This spring, half of the juniors opted out of testing at Palos Verdes High School following the lead of students and parents in New York State. This is of great concern to many leaders of both political parties, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who have put tremendous faith in these tests as an accurate measurement of student “knowledge” and “achievement”.

LAUSD does not have the demographics of Palos Verdes. But discontent with testing crosses class and color lines. What LAUSD fears is that black and Latino and Valley parents will look at these figures and see that their child is marked a “failure” by the test and say enough is enough.

There is no hiding the fact that one in 10 days of instructional time in LAUSD is spent taking these tests, and God knows how much more time preparing for and maniacally cheerleading students to take these tests, which have zero consequence or significance to them.

There are so many assumptions one has to make, believing the questions on the tests themselves truly do measure the “critical thinking” imperative that everyone pays lip service to. So little of that thinking gets emphasized in schools because the way these tests measure and credit it. Teachers are forced to teach test “critical thinking” rather than the more interesting and nuanced critical thinking that can’t be measured on a standardized test.

The entire education apparatus has been dishonest in leveling with the public on what constitutes a “good” education and how that is measured.  Much of this kind of education has been class and race based to the great detriment of students in systems like LAUSD.

The tests themselves are more important than education — at least “education” the way I, as a teacher and parent, would want for both my students and children. Janofsky gestures to the “hard” truths undermining educational achievement: poverty, “for a number of reasons” parents with limited ability to help with school, and insecurity: physical and economic.

And lo, these hard truths are, in fact, the only thing that these tests have actually been proven to measure. Standardized educational testing accurately measures a parents’ income.

What type of education would all parents buy for their kids if they could? A safe, clean, well-lit facility. Small class sizes. Well-trained, well-supported, experienced teachers. Respect for the creative, un-standardizable process of learning. No amount of testing will provide this. Worse, the obsession with test results actually distracts from the critical thinking necessary to make real changes.

Here’s hoping these tests get the honest scrutiny and analysis that they falsely claim to provide about our children. And then we can stop lying to ourselves address the real problems that standardized tests mask.

Joshua Leibner is a National Board Certified Teacher and 20 year veteran of LAUSD and a screenwriter.

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