Standardized Testing Criticized

Standardized tests came under sharp criticism at a recent public hearing at the School Administration Building.

The frustration of many teachers with current MPS testing policy was expressed by Mary Zimmerman, who introduced herself as a third grade teacher at Victor Berger school and then said, “I should rephrase that. I am not a third grade teacher, I am a third grade tester.”

She went on to describe the ten different standardized tests she must give to her students, and noted later that the list didn’t include the dozens of end of section and end of book reading, math, social studies and science tests that her students are also expected to talce. She concluded that while she mainly liked the state financed P-5 program, it had caused a dramatic increase in testing so that “our children are being tested to death.”

The hearing took place at the initiative of School Board member Mary Bills who offered a resolution “That the Milwaukee Public Schools discontinue administering multiple-choice tests  to all of its students.” 

Director Bills said she had put forth such a resolution in order to “spark discussion” at a time when Dr. Peterkin has asked that the curriculum be reassessed and retooled.

After listening to the testimony at the lively December 14th hearing, the Instruction and Community Relations Committee of the Milwaukee School Board voted to recommend the establishment of a taskforce on standardized testing that would assess the extent and cost of standardized testing practices in Milwaukee’s schools and examine alternative forms of assessment.

No Significant Use to Teachers

At the hearing educators criticized stan­dardized tests for a multitude of reasons. Rita Tenorio, a kindergarten teacher at Fratney Street School, questioned the use of the Metropolitan Readiness Test (MRT) in kindergarten. She stated, “In my experience the MRT has been of no significant use to myself, the parents, my students, or the first grade teachers who eventually receive my children … it has been a detrimental, harmful thing for many of my students.” She explained that the “test does not give an accurate measure of the broad range of skills needed for children to be ‘ready’ for 1st grade – self­ esteem, social competence, having a desire to learn, self discipline and independent work habits.” She urged the School Board to follow the lead of North Carolina, Ari­zona and Mississippi in banning standardized testing in preschool through second grade.

Mary Diez, Dean of Education at Alverno College, drew on the experience of her school to critique standardized tests. Alvemo has gained national acclaim for creatively using a wide variety of realistic performance assessments in the place of traditional testing. According to Diez there needs to be a “shift away from the belief that teaching is simply the dissemination of information and therefore testing  is, simply, how to measure how much information you have stuffed into kids’ heads that they can give back in discrete bits.” She argued that effective teaching is “the development of individual abilities, therefore testing needs to shift towards assessment of those abilities as they are performed by students in context.” Noting the negative impact multiple choice tests have on curriculum she cited Loren Resnick’s comment that “with the kind of teaching the (multiple choice) tests promote children have come to believe that mathematics is a collection of questions to which one can find an answer within about a minute or not at all.”

Peter Murrell, Associate Director of the Equal Opportunity Program at Marquette University, testified that “tests measure only a narrow band of artificial, decontextualized abilities; and they are not a means to diagnose instructional needs, because they reduce a child’s ability to a single number that is derived from a comparison with a different group of kids in a different place, in a different time and in many cases from a different culture from the one taking the test.”

Charges of Ethical and Legal Malpractice

Ken Wodtke, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at UWM, has spent several years researching the administration of standardized group tests to young children and conducted an extensive review of the literature. He testified that “the evidence strongly suggests ethical and legal malpractice in the administration of standardized tests to young children.” He cited “highly questionable and unstandard­ ized procedures” including the general conditions under which tests are given, the altering of testing procedures by teachers, wide variances in student behavior, the duration of tests, interruptions during tests, and prompting by teachers. He concluded that “the age appropriateness of such testing for many children is questionable” and that “misclassification based on test results always has serious consequences but for five and six year olds the consequences are even more seri­ous….the risks far outweigh the benefits.”

Bob Peterson, a Fratney Street School teacher, challenged the MPS administration’s assertion that “test information has served multiple uses [including] routine day to day school use [and] meeting school effectiveness planning needs.” He also asked the administration to provide the research that would support their contention that “[a]lmost any educational outcome that can be taught can be measured by multiple choice items….that almost any skill, ability, judgement or understanding that can be taught and tested by other forms can be measured. using multiple choice items.”

Mary Ann Padol, a primary level teacher at Victory School, called for the administration to conduct a survey of all teachers “asking how valuable the information _is that they get from standardized testing in helping to plan for the needs of their children.”

MPS requires that-students take a variety of standardized tests. In four grades – kindergarten , 2, 7, and 10 – all students take a series of standardized norm-referenced tests: The Metropolitan Achievement Test in kindergarten, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in grades 5 and 7, and the Test of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP) in 10th grade. All students must pass a competency test in reading, math, language and writing prior to graduation. Student,; enrolled in the federally funded/ Chapter I and TI programs and state “At-Risk” programs also take standardized tests. Students attending “Project Rise” or P-5 schools take additional standardized tests each year. In the fourteen P-5 schools this includes a battery of pre- and post-criterion referenced tests which are administered twice a year in math, language, science and social studies. Starting this spring all third graders in the state of Wisconsin will have to take a state reading comprehension test.

At Dr. Peterkin’s urging, the work of the Assessment Taskforce on Standardized Testing will be linked to the administration’s curriculum development plans. The Taskforce was specifically directed by the Instruction and Community Relations Committee “to review testing in MPS, to look at the discontinuance of standardized testing in Kindergarten through 2nd grade, to review all tests in the context of the curriculum development, and to examine multiple means of assessing performance.” Director Bills noted that she wanted people to serve on the taskforce who would “look critically” at testing. Finally she asked that a fiscal note be prepared outlining the costs of each test, preparation materials and the hours spent by staff, including guidance counselors, on testing.