It’s that time of year again in New Jersey, no, not Christmas. It’s time for standardized testing of third, fourth and fifth graders, the NJASK. The test covers just 2 subjects for third graders, math and English Language Arts. Fourth and fifth graders have to take a third subject, science. For the past few weeks teachers have been preparing their students for the NJASK by practicing writing prompts, critiquing previous essays, and reviewing math facts. Last week in Princeton, New Jersey, fifth graders took the tests, and younger children had to keep a quiet environment so the fifth graders could concentrate. Gym class did away with highly active sports, and younger children learned yoga for a week. While some loved the less competitive and more stretchy activity, others complained that gym was boring for 5 days. To celebrate the one year anniversary of Education Roundtable, this piece focuses on standardized testing, because the first show was entitled “Assessments”.
The New Jersey Department of Education has no rules about whether or not a student can or cannot opt out of the NJASK. However, not all school districts consider opting out of the NJASK an excused absence.
A spokesman for the state Department of Education said there is no statewide protocol for sitting out the tests. “Although the testing is required of schools, it is a local decision whether a student receives an excused or unexcused absence,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.
In 2013, some New Jersey parents opted out. In a national organization called United Opt Out National, parents in New Jersey sought advice on how to go about opting out. A parent in New Jersey, Joe Schwartz wrote in with his thoughts.
We are opting our daughter out (gr 7). We were told we would have to keep her home for nine mornings (4 of the test administration and 5 make-ups). We appealed to the county superintendent and then the state director of assessment, who kicked it back to the district. We are hoping that the school will make a very token effort to give her the test on the make-up mornings so we can send her to school without the pressure and embarrassment of being pulled out of class and sitting for the test. We are also investigating a legal challenge; this may help encourage the district to settle this with as little contentiousness possible.
Other parents help their children prepare for the test, because they know doing well on them will help their children in their academic career. Last year, some parents spoke up about how they prepare their children for the tests.
Jacquelyn Darby, a Union mom, said her basement is set up like a classroom and her fifth-grade son, and twin eighth-grade daughters, do practice test problems there. Doing well in school is not optional, she said. “It’s a requirement and, even when you go to college, it’s all about your language arts and math skills. It’s gotta be their meat and potatoes,” Darby said. “It’s one of those things we have to do. And if we have to do it, I’m for anything to help my child excel.”
Other New Jersey parents opted out their children from the NJASK by submitting a request to their district’s superintendent. Parents like former Assistant Superintendent Maryann Reilly of Morris School District, which serves Morristown and Morris Township, kept her son at home during the week of testing in 2012. A main reason for opting out, parents feel the standardized tests do not serve the purpose they were designed to serve.
“He has taken it since third grade, and we just decided this year, it was enough,” Reilly said. “We don’t value the measure, and we don’t get anything useful from it. We’re hoping people will wake up and see it is just not appropriate anymore,” she said.
In order to get a more complete picture of the original purpose of standardized tests, parents need to take a look into the distant past. Standardized tests originated in China some time in the 6th century CE. The imperial families used standardized testing as a means to implement social reform, shaping social structure based upon merit. The imperial examinations used a merit based system to look for candidates to fill civil service positions at the local level in rural districts to higher positions in metropolitan areas. The first Chinese tests covered music, archery, equestrian abilities, arithmetic, writing, and rituals and ceremonies. Later standardized tests included military strategies, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography.
In the 19th century, the British Empire colonized parts of China, and learned of the imperial examinations as a means to level the playing field. British administrator, Thomas Taylor Meadows, wrote to the British government explaining the success of standardized imperial examination.
The long duration of the Chinese empire is solely and altogether owing to the operation of a principle, which the policy of every successive dynasty has practically maintained in a greater or less degree, viz. that good government consists in the advancement of men of talent and merit only, to the rank and power conferred by the offical posts.
He also warned that if the British government did not employ the same system to seek local leadership in British government posts, then the British Empire would collapse. “England will certainly lose every colony she possesses unless she adopts some system of impartial elevation of colonists to the posts and honours at the disposal of the crown…”
Great Britain adopted standardized testing in the 19th century, and from there it spread to the United States. Much like the original usage in imperial China, standardized tests in the military, Army Alpha and Beta tests, searched for officers in a manner that removed bias between people from different socio-economic backgrounds. One of the psychologists that worked on the military test was Carl Brigham, a faculty member of Princeton University who eventually chaired the College Board commission in the 1920s to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). From then on, standardized testing became more prevalent.
Facing problems that stem from a highly de-centralized public education system and deeply concerned with educational inequity faced by the poor in the United States, President Lyndon B. Johnson looked to standardized testing for solutions. He created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that required standardized testing in public schools. In the 1980’s, the United States, heavily competing with Japan for economic dominance, was losing. As the United States wondered why the nation was losing its economic competitive edge to the Japanese, attention turned to education for an explanation. In April 1983, Nation At Risk published a report written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education , and it addressed the dominance of Japanese automobiles by promoting standardized testing. “Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work.”
In the 1990s, No Child Left Behind under President George W. Bush further extended the weight of standardized tests, and most recently, officials discovered the high stakes of standardized testing has led to not only teaching to the test but outright cheating. In April 2013, The New York Times found Atlanta, Georgia, doing such.
The widespread cheating and test score manipulation problem,” said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “is one more example of the ways politicians’ fixation on high-stakes testing is damaging education quality and equity.
What started off as well intentioned approach to social reform has lost its luster in the course of time. In addition to the unexpected ethical dilemma posed by standardized tests, test questions have become biased. According to the Parent, Student and Teacher Information Guide issued for the Spring 2013 NJASK, The New Jersey Department of Education states
All test questions are carefully reviewed by trained professionals and educators to ensure that the questions are fair and are not offensive to any group of people. After the test, all questions undergo statistical analysis for any racial, ethnic or gender bias. If a test question has poor statistical results from these analyses, it is eliminated from future tests.
There remains a much greater issue, at least on the literacy section. In the 1960s, prominent educators and researchers like Luise Rosenblat discovered that everyone reads everything a little differently. A sample English Language Arts poem in the 2013 NJASK reads “If my grandma didn’t have me, I don’t know what she would do – She’d have to eat millions of cookies and go by herself to the zoo.” Would a child who has never had the opportunity to be with any grandparent be able to connect with the writing and actually understand it? Not every child has the same family circumstances.
The first Education Roundtable show, which focused on assessments and how they might change, introduced Dr. Samuel Stewart, Mercer and Middlesex County Executive Superintendent, and Princeton Public Schools’ Assistant Superintendent Bonnie Lehat. New assessments created by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) will come out in the 2014-2015 academic year.