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Testing the Limits

Not only is standardized testing plaguing our schools, driving us to cheat, and making our children sick; it’s completely antithetical to Jewish values

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(Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

“Jane looked green this morning,” my daughter Josie tells me. Apparently, Jane had just vomited in the school’s third-floor bathroom. She and Josie and their fellow fourth-graders are in the thick of the public school standardized testing season, and puke is the new black. Last week were the New York State English tests; this week are the math tests. And it’s not just the fourth-graders who are feeling queasy. The weekend before the third-grade tests last year, another friend of Josie’s canceled a play date; he’d been anxiety-puking with such regularity that he was afraid to leave the house. And this isn’t just a problem faced by tightly wound New Yorkers. Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, told Parenting magazine about a meeting with school support staff in Florida that focused as much on puke as on pay. “One school secretary said that because the state requires every test to be submitted, she had taken to giving the elementary school teachers Ziploc bags and rubber gloves so they could wipe the vomit from the sheets and send them off in plastic,” Eskelsen said.

What does testing-induced gut-hork have to do with Jewish parenting, you may ask? Well, I think putting kids through this kind of torture for exceedingly pointless reasons is antithetical to our values.

Here’s why. Standardized tests are no longer being used for the purposes for which they were designed. They aren’t being used to give an overall picture of a school, to trigger teacher development and training, or to help principals concretely support struggling classes. A single test can now determine the fate of a student and can trigger huge sanctions against a school or financial rewards for individual teachers and principals whose students do well. And all this can induce people to cheat—a most un-Jewish value.

Messing with the tests to improve kids’ scores artificially seems to be a very real problem. Last week, the Washington Post reported that nearly 4,000 schoolteachers and parents have signed a petition urging federal officials to investigate possible cheating on standardized tests during the reign of Michelle A. Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor. In March, a USA Today investigation found that from 2008 through 2010, there were unusually high rates of answer changes—penciled-in bubbles being erased and re-filled-in differently—at 103 D.C. schools. At one school, more than 80 percent of the classrooms had tests flagged by McGraw-Hill, the testmaker, for unusual answer-changing tendencies.

Let’s look at the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, which Rhee frequently pointed to as proof of the success of her sweeping reforms (which basically amounted to an ever-increasing emphasis on testing and huge rates of firing teachers and principals in large part because of their test scores). Rhee called Noyes one of the “shining stars” of D.C.’s educational system. In 2006, only 10 percent of the school’s students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math; two years later, 58 percent were at that level. Awesome! The reading test gains were similar. Rhee made sure the staff was rewarded for their fabulosity: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher received an $8,000 bonus, and the principal received $10,000.

Yet according to USA Today, Noyes’ scoring irregularities were legion. On the 2009 reading test, for instance, seventh-graders in one classroom had almost 13 wrong-to-right erasures on their answer sheets; the average in D.C. was less than one. “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians,” the paper reported. A former D.C. principal told the paper that Rhee informed her and her colleagues that they were expected to increase scores by at least 10 percentage points every year.

As educational historian (and recent Daily Show guest) Diane Ravitch points out in her brilliant (and easy-to-read, non-jargon-y, and deeply depressing) book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, we should always be suspicious of humungous differences in data from year to year. Real, meaningful change doesn’t happen by leaps and bounds; it happens incrementally.

Ravitch’s perspective is fascinating, because she is someone who has truly had a turnaround—done teshuvah, in fact—on her earlier views on testing. Her book is a very public mea culpa. She’s a former United States assistant secretary of Education who was appointed by George H.W. Bush and was formerly aligned with conservative thinkers on accountability and school choice. “First she angered the Marxist historians, and later the fans of progressive education and the multiculturalists,” Jeffrey E. Mirel, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times last year. “But she’s always defended public schools and a robust traditional curriculum, because she believes they’ve been a ladder of social mobility.”

Indeed, that’s the role public schools have always served for American Jews. Ravitch tells a story in her book about how she didn’t get into a private school in her Texas hometown because, according to her parents, the headmistress didn’t like Jews. After that, her parents were big supporters of public education. Ravitch writes that she initially applauded No Child Left Behind and other testing-driven initiatives, but when she looked at the results and at the actual outcomes (high test scores don’t actually indicate knowledge and learning; the new accountability policies don’t involve helping teachers teach better and principals administer better) she changed her mind.

“Accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education,” Ravitch writes. “Testing, I realized with dismay, had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets.”

Ravitch says she’s too essentially conservative to embrace an agenda driven by speculation and uncertain results. And it was that (very Jewish!) conservatism about values, traditions, and the need to protect communities that made her change her tune and publicly break with her former allies. But Ravitch’s conservativism is the kind that squares with both American and Jewish values, struggling, as it does, with the notion of the individual versus the community and the question of whether America truly is a meritocracy.

As Jews, we dig community. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, we’re told: Do not separate yourself from the community. Our prayers are written overwhelmingly in the first person plural. But standardized testing is the furthest thing from communitarian. Wealthy families buy tutoring. Upper-middle-class kids come into school with the huge advantage of being read to more often at home. Testing enforces existing divisions and even increases them. And being Jewish means you shouldn’t just worry about your kids; you should be concerned about everyone’s kids. That means working to improve all schools—yes, even if your kid goes to Jewish Day School—in meaningful ways, because that’s part of the responsibility of living in a democracy.

And no one’s kids should be barfing from anxiety at the age of 8.

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A. C. Britzer says:

Ms. Ingall, I applaud your framing of this issue in terms of Jewish values. But, I might add, what do Jewish values tell us about social promotion? Or about high school students who can’t read beyond third grade level?

As a business person who has interviewed and hired many people, I’ve been appalled by the high proportion of college graduates who can’t do simple math. If we don’t test their learning in elementary school and secondary school, how can we know who can do the work and who can’t?

I have no solutions. I would hope that someone as experienced and respected as Diane Ravitch might offer some.

Hi, AC — testing isn’t inherently bad at all. And I agree that it’s shocking how lousy the math and writing skills of many college grads are! But “teaching to the test” only makes those problems worse, because logical reasoning and truly skilled writing aren’t easy to construct standardized tests around. Testing has its place, absolutely, but there are far more nuanced assessment tools — portfolios of student work, projects that require organization, writing, problem-solving, the evolution of lit and math skills over the course of the year — that can offer a much better picture of how kids are learning. If you read Todd Farley’s Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, you’ll be shocked by how poorly constructed the tests themselves are, written and scored by folks with little training and no special expertise in education. Right now we’re spending gazillions on testing, in large part so we can fire teachers — I’m definitely no expert, but I bet some of the devoted folks with backgrounds in education (not just in business) have ideas about how to spend that money for teacher development, school supplies, and other things besides testing that could really help kids learn, not just “assess.”

Thanks for mentioning social promotion — I think I’ll do a whole piece on it in the near future. Great topic that deserves its own piece.

JCarpenter says:

The concept of “high-stakes testing” needs to be removed from education.

Teaching to the test, designing curriculum solely on the outcomes-based theory (another term to remove), using test scores as sole basis for school and teacher evaluation simply is forcing square pegs to fit in predetermined round holes. So much of testing decisions are made by politicians, not educators; so many curriculum decisions are made by non-teaching/never-ever-taught administrators . . . .

As marjorie says, spend the testing money on better education/training/re-training of teachers; spend the money on better atmosphere within the school, on the school grounds, in the surrounding community—

Such great timing. My second grader had to be pried, sobbing, from the car today. First day of testing. She was a wreck. Fortunately, this is the last year of 2nd grade testing as CA is out of money. While I am deeply concerned about the financial future of the educational system here in CA, I can’t help but be relieved that no more second graders will have to waste perfectly good instructional time on these tests.

Brava! My kids go to Jewish day school and still have to take a week-long round of standardized tests in the 3rd and 5th grades. I try, and I think our school does, too, to dial down stress in our kids the weeks leading up to it, and of course the week of.
Thank you for this article. I am genuinely shocked about the puke-factor, and I consider myself pretty well informed.

Sandy says:

Thank you for this article.
Marjorie, you say, “putting kids through this kind of torture for exceedingly pointless reasons is antithetical to our values.”

I would hope putting kids through this kind of torture…is antithetical” to *any* parent’s values, Jewish or not. And I wish they’d all stand up and say so.

Sandy: You’re absolutely right, of course.

Phillip Cohen says:

When NCLB and standards based instruction was implemented I was conflicted. There was the need to hold educators accountable to the learning process which was a good thing. However, there appeared to be an intentional program designed to lead teachers and schools to fail. I watched, over the years, increases in math and writing skills in a majority of students at the differing schools where I was employed.In any environment this would be consider the strength of a school. But with the existing system many public schools that show these types of successes are marked for failure.

Unfortunately, over the past 5 or 6 years it seems as if with the push for vouchers, charter schools and a number of private educational entities -all of whom can withdraw from standards based testing -undermine the public school system to provide free and appropriate education for all. The very tests public schools are mandated to give and that may make some of our children sick are the assessments used to ensure that schools fail. With the impulse for so many wanting the privatization of our schools it appears as though public schools have to go into the boxing ring with both hands tied behind its’ back.

Apologies for belaboring the obvious, but bar associations, medical licensing boards and DMVs all impose rigorous testing requirements. Yet one hardly ever hears arguments to the effect that driving tests are too stressful, or that the rigor of med school exams encourages cheating, or that law schools end up “teaching to the test” instead of truly educating their students in the law. That’s probably because almost everyone actually cares whether doctors, lawyers and drivers have the skills their credentials attest to.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about public school graduates. As often as not, earnest liberals (and dogmatic conservatives, for that matter) would rather see schools conform to their ideologies than be effective. And the movement against testing is the result.

Far from stifling social mobility, standardized testing allows hardworking, talented children from any background to demonstrate their ability, free of the prejudices that often infect more subjective approaches to evaluation. Of course, the results often disturb dogmatic liberals, showing that the children of hardworking, disciplined strivers outperform their own pampered, self-absorbed, politically indoctrinated offspring. And some conservatives, worried that effective testing might actually revive public education, complain that it gives too much power to the standard-setters.

Its only remaining supporters, in fact, are the beleaguered few who still care, first and foremost, whether public school children are learning enough.

eli says:

“As Jews, we dig community. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, we’re told: Do not separate yourself from the community.” This is usually interpreted as do not separate yourself from the Jewish community as concerns behavior, halachah and minhagim. It can be broadened to the general public but if you do not follow the basics than broadening it may be just a way to justify what one already wants.

Despite the “politically correct” emphasis by Phillip on public schools, maybe the way to improve all schools is to offer more options, more choice and vouchers – which could offer free and appropriate education, especially since children come to school with very different skills, as noted.

Phillip Cohen says:

Dan, hi. The article was not about the testing of teachers. Educators, like doctors, lawyers and those with driver’s licenses take tests (mutiple tests) to qualify for their credentials. That I believe takes care of the first part of your argument.

For the second part, I will not speak for the right or the left. Small chidren should not be made to vomit. A child does not learn better because he or she regurgitated lunch. The last time I look no 8 year old was required to take the Bar, medical licensing or driver’s license. Comparing these to the experience of an elementary school student is a little off.

Eli, I am trying to figure out what you mean by “politically correct.”
I just wonder if the best compromise is to offer more choice from within public schools. In private schools, when profit is placed ahead of students and there is a true lost of accountability as you would not find in public schools, maybe it would be better to offer a wide range of school programs within the various public settings. Oh, wait, public schools already do that. Children can attend their local elementary through comprehensive high school or attend a store front program located at some mall or find a magnate program for the arts or science. It already exists with accountability built in. This is absent, in many cases, in private schools where they can opt out of standards based testing.

Daniel P-L says:

Marjorie,

I applaud you for encouraging the Jewish community to stand up to the testing culture and what it is doing to our children with no real educational benefit.

But I disagree with you when you say “Real, meaningful change doesn’t happen by leaps and bounds; it happens incrementally.”

There are dozens of public Montessori schools in the US where amazing things are happening. Like East Dallas Community Schools which is only K-3 but the students still get a foundation that creates a high school graduation rate of 94% of our third-grade alumni have graduated from high school; with 88% of those have gone on to college.” This is in a district where the overal graudation rate from high school is less than 50% in a community that is 75% non-white and almost half of their students do not speak English when they enroll at EDCS schools and the majority (over 60%) of EDCS students come from poverty-level families.

There is no cheating at Montessori schools because there are no tests, grades and almost no homework. Students are learning to master sills and subjects, not perform on tests. Montessori has been using “alternative assessment for decades” with great results.

See my article entitled, “Superwoman Was already Here” which is favorably noted on a blog of that bastion of progressive thought, Forbes Magazine.

http://blogs.forbes.com/stevedenning/2011/03/24/montessori-is-an-example-of-the-new-culture-of-learning/

If the Jewish community wanted to work to improve all schools, it would use its influence to encourage more public Montessori schools.

And yes, my children attend a private Jewish Montessori school in NJ.

I welcome feedback on my article and this letter.

Best wishes,

Daniel Petter-Lipstein
Passionate Montessori Dad

Philip, you’ve completely missed my point. We test doctors, lawyers and drivers–and public school students–because it’s important to know whether they’ve learned what they need to learn. All the arguments used against public school testing apply to testing of doctors, lawyers and drivers as well: it’s extremely stressful, it creates an incentive to cheat, and it ends up shaping–and often narrowing–the material that gets taught. But all of these perfectly valid arguments are ultimately overridden by the clear and obvious necessity of verifying that doctors, lawyers and drivers have mastered certain crucial skills.

Conversely, those who argue against testing of public school children are in effect saying that it’s just not that important for public school children to master the skills that they’re being tested for. If they have their way, then children overall–and particularly disadvantaged children, who have fewer alternative learning opportunities–will inevitably end up learning less. And I think that’s sad.

dport says:

According to my AP Literature teacher, as I’m currently a high school senior, the Obama administration’s new policies don’t enforce strict testing policies, that is a state issue…If states choose to adopt the administration’s guidelines, you should see a decrease in testing practices…(my teacher is on numerous state boards, and a national board assessing the new curriculum changes as made by the administration, of and relating to how it affects GA)

Also, the standardization process of many tests, at least in GA and from the College Board (AP/SAT) is a rigorous process involving using a group of standardized test takers (from an approach similar to, if not exactly, an SRS, or Simple Random Sample) (or at least JUST as rigorous/if not more) meaning the argument that schools can teach differently/kids come from different backgrounds negligible…(For more info on testing standardization, I believe the College Board has this info readily available on their website, or you may request it.)

That being said, I do disagree with standardized testing’s effects, like stratification of school environments between the types of students, HOWEVER, once in high school, the SAT/ACT should be used as helpful tools for colleges to assess the incoming students, as they are valid and reliable tests of what your APTITUDE is, NOT your achievement, and I think more often nowadays, people ignore that fact and use tests as explanations of what a student is…Now, that being said, there is statistical evidence that these tests have NO EFFECT on how well you do in college (due to confounding variables) & should be taken “with a grain of salt.”

AP testing is achievement based, and has statistical evidence that it is valid on how well you will do with the course taken in college, as the scores directly correlate to college grades, however there are confounding variables leading to evidence that it is not often reliable. This is how you can achieve college credit for appropriate scores.

Ellen says:

Hey New Yorkers, how about the dreaded, thrice yearly battery of NYS Regent Exams on all different subjects areas? I have very mixed feelings about these exams, and slogged through them as a student as well as a teacher (and continue to do so, as a veteran teacher).
But at least these tests are administered to middle school and high school students. I still feel in my gut that testing 3rd graders with high pressure exams is disgusting.

DLS says:

Not every issue is a “Jewish” issue and this one seems particularly misplaced. First, the unJewishness mentioned is the incentive to cheat. That proves too much. Every test with serious consequences provides the same incentive. Are the LSATs and MCATs unJewish? If there is cheating, stop the cheating — not the testing. And as for the pressure of the tests and their anti-communitarianism, surely Jews do not wish for the days when group membership — not merit — dictated (academic) achievement. It seems to me that the good old days were full of quotas designed to preserve WASPy Ivy League communities and of anti-semitism against those Jews who dared to compete for As rather than settle for a Gentleman’s C.

Standardized tests (when unblemished by cheating) measure something (knowledge, test-taking ability, intelligence?) objectively. They don’t tell us why there are differences among kids, but they do tell us something. And that information can be useful.

The tests and how they are being used today may or may not be good things on balance, but casting the issue as Jewish vs. non-Jewish is just plain foolish. If this is a Jewish issue, then I guess every issue is a Jewish issue. And then the label is just plain pointless.

Stephen Schmidt says:

The discussion of cheating is missing the point. The cheating is not being done by the students; it’s being done by the teachers. It’s not the students making those wrong-to-right erasure corrections; it’s the teachers doing it while they’re grading the exams. The problem, or at least the misalignment of incentives, is that the students are the ones taking the test but the teachers (or principals or schools) are the ones held responsible. There are rarely any consequences for a student who doesn’t do well on a test (correctly IMHO). The teachers bear the consequences, but they’re not the ones taking the tests. That’s why the analogy to bar exams, etc, is flawed. In those cases, the person being tested is also the person whose competency is being measured. With standardized testing in schools, that’s not the case.

Since teachers can’t do much else, at least not on test day, they put pressure on the kids, and then the puking commences.

Someone will perhaps object that the teachers could teach better, but in fact a kid’s performance on tests isn’t solely determined by how good the teacher they had that year for that class was. It depends a lot on what the kid learned in previous years, who their previous teachers were, what kind of home support they have, what their social and economic background is, etc. Value-added measures of testing solve some of those problems, but a) it introduces new problems, specifically the very high random variance of value-added measures, and b) few states are assessing either schools or teachers through value-added methods yet (though the movement is in that direction).

One solution would be to change the testing regimes, so that (for example) teachers don’t mark the very exams on which they’re being judged. The current regime is very poorly thought out. In general, though, I think JCarpenter is right – testing needs to be low-stakes, not high. That’s how it’s done in higher education (where I work) and it’s much more effective.

Michael says:

I never realized my kids had an unfair advantage because I read to them. I was so racked with guilt that I ordered them to stop reading books, and they are no longer allowed to study until the other kids catch up.
Wait an easier solution maybe to stop testing so my kids don’t out perform the majority of their peers.
Oh yeah, thats the point of your article.

LazerBeam says:

Who said anything about stopping testing? The question is what kind of tests should be administered under what kind of circumstances with what kind of consequences for learning effectiveness and what kind of value for teaching effectiveness feedback? The interactive-adaptive testing by computer reduces/eliminates the embarrassment of giving a wrong answer in front of the class, while adapting the rate of advancement to the rate of mastery of the preceding material. In general, students who learn in this way do at least as well on the standardized tests as students who learn in the traditional manner, but generally more quickly. The students who are most challenged by computer-based learning are the procrastinators, and that is also true of traditional teaching methods.

One of the best teaching tools I experienced in elementary school was teaching through competitive games, where the class divided up by a variety of criteria (e.g., boys vs. girls; born before and after July1, etc.) and vied for victory by getting more right answers than the other team. It didn’t matter what subject was involved, it was fun to play a competitive intellectual game, usually a variation of “Jeopardy” or “Concentration”, and the teacher got immediate feedback on which concepts and facts had been learned and memorized by all, most, some, or none with the least stress for the students. The teacher then adapted the lessons to fill in the holes in understanding, drilled for memorization, and used the need to redeem the honor of the losers in a rematch as a motivator to study harder.

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Testing the Limits

Not only is standardized testing plaguing our schools, driving us to cheat, and making our children sick; it’s completely antithetical to Jewish values

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