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Tennessee students are not ready to take the test

By Rebecca Horvath • Dec 6, 2015 at 12:00 AM

Do you have school-age children? Have you given much thought to the amount of testing your children suffer through?

Last year, local high school students spent 10 days taking standardized tests. If you think that seems excessive, brace yourself: this year, a total of fifty-four school days are designated for testing, with some flexibility allowed in which days each school administers the exams. Let that sink in for a moment.

Then consider how many days are dedicated to preparing for these exams, on which school funding, teacher evaluation and student success are heavily based.

There is something severely wrong here. Appointed officials in Nashville — some of whom have never set foot in a classroom — make careers out of making choices for our children and teachers. It’s clear that many of these choices are harming our children.

Common Core Standards aim to ensure a uniformity of experience in educational systems throughout the country. But along with a new curriculum comes new ways to measure student success.The Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (or TCAP) was phased out and now TN Ready is the test of the moment.

These tests, with the exception of science, are administered online. Kids today are far more technology-savvy than their parents, but third graders are not typically fluent typists. Yet they have to type answers to a writing exam, navigate through different screens and functions and teachers cannot help them — at all — during the test. A student could be unsure how to advance from one question to the next and spend his entire testing period struggling with the most basic part of the exam, his teacher helpless to assist him.

(Students do practice many aspects of the technology involved – when they could be learning actual subjects – but how many forget, panic or succumb to the stress of the moment?) Even technical glitches with hardware or the test itself — say, a slow-moving internet connection — can hinder a student’s progress through the test and, ultimately, his results. There is nothing to account for these issues.

Also, it’s important to understand that students are set up to fail these tests. Each state sets its own “cut scores” for the test – similar to grading on a scale. States setting their benchmarks lower will have better test scores and the cut scores can be raised or lowered to the percentage of kids the state wants to pass the test. This means that kids could theoretically fail the test even if they answered all the questions correctly. Further, the cut scores are set after the tests are taken.

While we don’t know what percentage will be set this year, it’s notable that last year, only 100 students in the entire state earned a perfect score on their writing test. Surely that would be impossible without cut scores.

In one school district, a group of 70 teachers took the practice test for third grade social studies. These are highly-rated educators who teach this material (and beyond) to their students. Guess how many teachers passed the third grade exam? One.

A great deal of money — our tax dollars – has been invested in the TN Ready test. (Without our voice or consent, mind you.) Of course it seems crazy to summarily throw it out, but these tests haven’t even been properly “vetted.”

The students who suffer most from testing are disadvantaged ones – those who may not get adequate support at home and don’t eat breakfast before school (or dinner the night before). These students need all the support they can get at school, but when they fail the tests every year, what happens to them? They slip through the cracks, become discouraged and most likely never break out of the cycle of poverty.

A positive school experience, including relative success, might just be what these kids need to help them rise above their current station in life. But that’s never going to happen in the current educational culture.

Teachers can only teach what will appear on the test — there is no time for any extras, for more deeply exploring a topic that really sparks interest in students or even incorporating current events into lessons. Some teachers have an extraordinary talent for teaching creatively. Others have a way of making history come alive or math problems apply to real life.

But in the current environment, there is little room for these educators to use their own gifts because it leads them too far away from the test material. Teachers are getting burned out in a hurry — enormously talented men and women are leaving the profession for less stressful careers. Can you blame them?

Children are eager learners, but the daily humdrum of learning what’s on a test produces stress and adult-level worries in our young children. Kids should strive to do well in school, of course, but putting this amount of stress on them is not only unfair, it is downright atrocious.

The state has effectively bullied parents into believing they have no choice about testing. Their idea of “opting out” of the test is to homeschool or attend private school. Really? Those two options are unreasonable and impossible for a large percentage of families.

Some school districts allow parents to opt-out or refuse the tests, but those districts are then at risk of losing funding. Low-performing schools get labeled as “failing” and lose even more funding. It’s a vicious cycle and it has to change.

How do these tests prepare students for college and the real world, anyway? High school grades are a far better predictor of success in college than scores on standardized tests. And when was the last time you had to take a test to measure your job performance? If you’re like most of us, never.

Don’t get me wrong — classroom tests are important in measuring individual learning and helping teachers know where kids are struggling. But there’s a world of difference in classroom tests and the standard test given to every student across the state, graded without any consideration of variables and factors affecting outcomes.

Some states have adopted an “opt-out” option. There is a grassroots effort to achieve this in Tennessee. While it’s a start, it doesn’t solve the bigger problem of the test-centered education our children receive. Missing the test but being present for the instruction, the stress overload and the hyper-focus on testing is only marginally better. An opt-out is merely a bandage.

Our local schools are outstanding, but their individual commitment to excellence is being compromised by the standards imposed in Nashville. Imagine how much better they would be if allowed to do what they do best — teach our kids.

It’s high time we got some answers from Nashville. We can’t stand by while they promote an academic culture driven by tests and controlled by failure, pouring money into the pocketbooks of unelected bureaucrats. This is important, folks. Please contact your school board, local and state representatives, the Tennessee Board of Education and Gov. Bill Haslam. We must demand better for our children and their futures.

Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist.

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