There's been a lot of push back against standardized testing in Texas and across the country. Last year Texas lawmakers passed a law reducing the number of state exams a highschooler has to take from 15 to five. Author Ron Berler followed one Connecticut high school as students and teachers agonized over exams over the course of a year. Berler will be speaking tonight at the Baylor School of Education. KWBU's Ryland Barton talked with him about his book, "Raising the Curve."
Ron Berler served as a volunteer mentor in Norwalk, Connecticut’s Brookside elementary school. Over the course of 2010 he followed the principal, a couple teachers and a handful of fifth-grade students as they dealt fallout from budget cuts and the pressures of standardized testing. Norwalk is a city of 84,000 that’s surrounded by four of the richest suburbs in Connecticut. Berler says in 2010, all 19 of Norwalk’s schools were failing according to standardized testing results.
"It’s not that they don’t advance, they advance at the same rate as those wealthy suburban communities," Berler said. "It’s just that they start off in the cellar, the other communities start off on the 8th floor."
And Brookside wasn’t getting any better. Under the federal No Child Left Behind act, schools that fail to show progress on these tests face sanctions. Teachers whose students don’t show progress are often fired and whole school can face closure. There’s an enormous amount of pressure for teachers to perform—or at least get their students to perform well on the test. And that’s what Berler says hurts kids.
"When you combine that with being drilled day after day 'you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to achieve not only for yourself but for the good of the school. Yeah, these kids get crazy," Berler said.
Berler says that teachers ended up having to "teach to the test.” Coaching students how to take the state’s standardized test well instead of providing a well-rounded education.
"If you have a great curriculum, why should you have to blow it up for tests? It should be good enough to stand up on its own," Berler said. "But because we have a punitive model—in other words, make this number or else, we teach it differently."
The effect? Brookside’s scores have improved slightly, but they’re still failing according to No Child Left Behind standards. In the book, Brookside’s principal of the school is happy to be improving even slowly. But teachers and administrators are forced to focus attention on students who are just below passing. Berler says that leaves some students out.
"The two groups they were leaving out were the low achievers, who no matter what Mrs. Schaefer or anyone else did, she could advance them but not enough to pass the test," Berler said. "So, lets blow them off, lets not worry about them for 22% of the school year. Who else lost time? The kids on the high end. Why worry about the kids on the high end? They’re going to pass!"
Though Texas may have reduced the number of standardized tests high school students have to take, there’s still some pressure to remove standardized tests all together. Earlier this month two Waco parents requested that their child be excused from all standardized testing. According to the Dallas Morning News, the Texas Education Agency denied their request. Dr. Tony Talbert is a professor with Baylor’s School of Education. He says even though Berler’s book took place in Connecticut, it rings true in Texas.
"It is the story of Waco," Talbert said. "It is the story of multiple districts and campuses across the state because testing has become the de facto national curriculum of the United States."