Portland Public Schools and the Boycott of Standardized Tests (by Guest Blogger Tyler Baird)

oaks testingWith all the talk about standardized testing and the negative reviews that they have gotten, I thought that it would be interesting to read about this boycott taking place in our own city (here’s the link). The Portland Public School have called for their students to not show up for their OAKS exams, which are required for graduation, in order to make the point that these tests simply do not work. The argument has been made that these types of tests are unfair for both student and teachers, and take away from important class time. Though the schools are in support of this boycott, they are also afraid of the consequences. Let’s hear what you think.
Questions to Discuss
  • Is standardized testing an effect way to measure a students knowledge and skills? Why or why not?
  • Do you believe that boycotting is too extreme for this type of situation? Why or why not?
  • What can you suggest for an alternative to this type of testing?

22 thoughts on “Portland Public Schools and the Boycott of Standardized Tests (by Guest Blogger Tyler Baird)

  1. Yes, standardized testing measures students’ knowledge, however, it is not an effective way and by far doesn’t measure their skills. Every student has their own strengths (some are in art, music, business, technology) that have nothing to do with the typical reading, writing, and math we are tested on. I understand it is important to have a thorough understanding of skills in the three subjects, but, like the article on achievement compacts touches on (http://www.oregon.gov/gov/oeib/docs/pfachievementcompactsqanda.pdf), students need to be measured by their improvement each year rather than their test scores. I think this is important in education.

    I do believe that boycotting is extreme because until any law is passed, those kids won’t be able to graduate if they boycott the state tests; even if it is for a good cause. They could definitely set up many protests to fight against the tests, but completely boycotting is only hurting them in the long run.

    My alternative, somewhat like stated above, is to test them on their improvement. Like in my mom’s kindergarten class and many elementary school classrooms, test them in subjects (sure, we could just stick to math, reading, and writing) at the very beginning of the year, at the mid-year mark, and at the very end of the year. Giving them the same questions each time (never giving them the correct answers). The tests can be set up at the level they should be at, but the shouldn’t have to pass it to move on, just show that they have improved. As long as students are improving, their schooling isn’t a waste and they deserve a chance (unlike the state tests give to students who aren’t at that level).

    • I like Lindsay’s suggestion for an alternative. It makes much more sense to use standardized testing the way it was originally intended – solely as a measuring stick. Not as a merit system for funding.

      On that note, another thing that bothers me about required standardized testing is the way it is used as a litmus test that dictates allocation of funding and other resources to schools. It places public education in a Catch-22 position! On the one hand, schools that are already struggling must strive to achieve higher benchmark scores to earn more government support, but on the other hand they continue to fall short because they aren’t able to reach academic par because their resources are limited. So their resources continue to be limited, and they continue to fall short, and so on. It is a vicious circle we have set up in this country.

      Here’s a quote from the Oregon Live article that hit home for me:
      “School superintendents said their goals for 2013 are modest for good reason: They had little time to set them and lacked reliable figures to know their current performance levels, let alone how high they could reach next year. And, given that their funding is flat or down for next year and they’re cutting teachers, services and school days, they simply can’t pledge better results, they say.” (http://www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2012/08/oregon_school_officials_set_lo.html)

      …And here’s the link to the Save Our Schools article that demonstrated the other side of that coin:

      • Something that I find concerning about this post and many other comments, are the use of references to unreliable news sources. There is a great deal of misinformation floating around the internet. In this article “Save our Schools -Why teachers give race to the top an F.” It links to “several studies” to support its claims. But this link takes us to another news article on the web page “Common Dreams.” I don’t know enough about the particular studies linked here to make any claim one way or another. But I can find a great deal of false information on their other “news” stories. The most blaring example is a story they wrote about Genetically Modified Organism, where they use the now infamous Séralini study. The Séralini study has now been long debunked by many independent science groups world wide. But unfortunately, it is still cited as evidence. http://badskeptic.com/?p=677

        I hope I don’t cause this conversation to get too off topic. I came here to talk about education, not GM science. But my point is this: How do we go about fact checking our own assumptions?

        Some other important questions would be; How do we know the information we find on the internet is true? How do we fact check articles that are super charged with political agenda?

    • If standardized tests are neglecting other assets that students have, we need to be looking at how kids are being tested.

      I knew a kid who did horribly in high school, and now he’s being hired to make graffiti style murals on people’s walls, and even by the city. If his artistic nature had been nurtured, maybe he wouldn’t have been labeled a loser.

  2. I must agree that standardized testing in the classrooms has been a serious step back for the educational system. I have seen it in the classes that I have worked in, how preparing for these tests to gage the knowledge of these students takes away from the true curriculum they should be learning. Often times, students are forced to learn specific problems to attain particular answers, rather than taught how to apply a deductive analysis toward problems that would show how much they have learned up to that point in their education.

    Although I do believe that it is important to show support for change through some forms of protest, boycotting these particular standardized tests can prove ineffective with what they are trying accomplish. What their boycott would do is lower the testing scores in their particular school, thereby hurting only those who go to that school or live in that area. They also put themselves in the predicament of possibly not meeting the requirements needed to graduate. I would prefer that these students figure out a different way of showing their dissatisfaction with these standardized tests, perhaps coming up with alternative ways of measuring the student’s knowledge in subject matters.

    The problem with standardized tests is that it is a “one size fits all” solution to trying to measure the educational value of its students. Not all students are proficient test-takers and there certainly is not an even level of resources that ensures that students receive the same kind of education throughout all schools. These issues need to be addressed before we can figure out a better way to standardize our educational system that lacks any type of standard on all levels.

  3. I agree, Lindsay, boycotting the tests needed to graduate asks our kids to pay for our bad ideas. I think it is a little ironic that PPS is asking for the voice of students to make a point here, when they so rarely solicit and even more rarely give weight to the voices of students otherwise.

    I also agree that it would be much more fair to test kids early and then periodically to gauge progress towards a goal, rather than only considering “crossing the line” to be valuable. This makes every gain a child achieves valuable independent of the final goal and enhances the value the journey and not only the destination. I also feel that if a kid is not ready to progress to the next stage/level/grade, that forcing them simply because of their age is a BAD idea. It makes stalling a viable tactic and while their age based social identity may be preserved, they are now out of their depth intellectually and often resort to other less desirable tactics to save face and maintain their prestige in the group.

  4. What comes to mind for me first is differences in learning styles. While there are still innumerable other factors that show standardized testing a faulty way of assessing knowledge gained in class, what comes to my mind immediately is my father’s extreme aversion to exams. My father is a Vietnam Veteran and experiences extremely heightened levels of stress in what most other people would consider normal-to-low stress situations. My dad HATES standardized tests and although he may be a genius, literally, you would never know it if you looked at his test scores.
    Although my father suffers from a disease that may not be common in young learners, who is to say that they couldn’t be suffering from another disability, or maybe something as simple as a different learning style? Some are auditory learners, others visual. Myself, tactile. The fact of the matter is that standardized tests alone do not accurately assess the student’s mastery of material learned in class. But be clear, the list of reasons why standardized tests are defective goes beyond learning style: Family income, zip code, disabilities……

  5. I remember having to take the standardized tests in high school, I never liked taking them, but for me it was a good way to get out of class. I don’t think it is a good way to measure knowledge because when ever I took the tests I didn’t try. I was there to be out of class. I graduated high school with a 3.0 average and I never passed a standardized test.

    I don’t know if boycotting is to extreme. I think if you need to pass these test to graduate then, yeah I think it is worth taking a stand for, but I never had to do prep for the tests or anything, so whats an hour out of my day to take the test? Unless the have changed the test since I was in school, and now it take up class time to prep for the test and the tests take all day, then again I think it is okay to take a stand on this situation.

    I think they should throw out standardized tests because they seem to be hindering kids from learning what they should, why cant they just have midterms and finals like we have? Or just tests them at the end of every quarter, or semester depending on how your school runs.

  6. Tyler, I think it is interesting that you point out boycotting might be too extreme. I think that in lots of situations I look at boycotting as a means to express discontent yet nothing is accomplished. In the case of education, it seems like public knowledge is part of the biggest problem so I think if the boycott’s just encourage conversation among more people then they are effective.

    As far as NCLB is concerned in Elizabeth Shogren’s article “No Child Left Behind Gets a Revamp” she interviews Tom Luna, the superintendent of Idaho, and he has a great point of view around it. He uses the example of a student who is way behind at the beginning of the school year, makes amazing progress, yet still doesn’t pass the standardized test, so the school doesn’t “pass” either. I think that is a huge part of the problem that standardized testing has; there is no room to track improvement. It is easy to place a label on something based on a score on a test but it doesn’t explain the entire situation.
    (Link to Shogren’s article: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/08/139220019/no-child-left-behind-update)

    Coming up with an alternative is really difficult which is why we are here in the first place. If teachers, parents, etc. could come up with a better alternative then it would be easy to convince the country to change its ways. It is easy to just sit back and wait for someone else to come up with a solution, but we should really get more people involved in this issue in order to get more ideas on the table and progress towards something that benefits the teachers and more importantly the students.

    • Sean makes some great points about the purpose of boycotts. It is a means to express ourselves and to get more people in on this act of free speech. In the case of Portland Public Schools boycotting standardized testing, it was effective in publicizing the issue and getting people involved since this might be a common issue faced by parents, children, educators, administrators, etc. To answer Tyler’s question, I don’t see this form of boycotting as “extreme” but an opportunity for people, who face these issues, to organize a movement that will change the inequities in our education system.

      Standardized testing is ineffective in measuring all of the student’s academic knowledge and skills because it does not measure a student’s overall ability to learn. “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning,” quoted by Bill Ayers, known for his work as an elementary education theorists and activist.

      As an alternative, Governor Kitzhaber’s Achievement Compact has potential to do well in education reform; however, it lacks accountability and leadership, which are critical in sustaining the vision of the reform. I think revisions need to be made that will not only foster students’ academic development but will give educators an incentive to set higher standards for their students to achieve.

      • I agree about the Achievement Compact. In fact that is something I have noticed in a few of the things that keep programs like this from succeeding. When looking at the Race to the Top program it looked like Oregon really struggles with accountability and planning. It is frustrating when a good idea is marred by bad implementation and poor follow-up.

    • Sean,

      I agree it is important to get more people involved to find solutions for our students. We have for far to long depended on standardized testing to measure the educational levels of our students. The problem is that these tests have done little to measure how complete of an individual these students are, relying on just math and reading as a form of measurement. Students need to become more well-balanced individuals. It is what our society expects from each person that becomes a part of community. What we have created from our current programs is an emphasis on minimalism, which has led to cutting corners from all levels. We need to create an educational program that places more emphasis on more subjects rather than a bare minimum of math and reading.

      It is important that we get parents and educators on board to find a better solution to the many problems escalating in our educational system. Although Race for the Top has tried to find the best results that engage students, it has left many students without the valuable resources needed for a well-balanced educational program for “ALL”. It has left us with the best-gets-all-mentality. We need to begin to find funding from within our society that reaches out to all students, schools and districts so that all students, rather than a select few, can have a path to prosperity and opportunities that has been denied year in and year out.

  7. I agree that although this system is imperfect, boycotting is a little too extreme since these state tests aren’t going away anytime soon until a new, better system can take its place. While at the moment these tests do measure a student’s learning of the material taught in class, it assumes that students are all at the same level of learning and thus should be able to comprehend the same things. This seems to be the ultimate drawback in its implementation; that students are not all at the same level because of the lack of funding we have in the first place that has handicapped our teachers in being able to catch students up to current lessons. We cannot catch students up to this “benchmark” until we have sufficient funds for bigger classrooms, more experienced teachers, and other resources that would help our students effectively learn relevant material and not just material the government expects us to know.

    These tests help teachers see where their students are, which I think is useful. But then using these tests as a qualifier for graduation is where I think needs improvement.

    • Christine, great post! I think you summed everything up perfectly. Like you mentioned, the tests test students on what they learned in class even if they all started at different levels. Through this weeks readings and the blog posts, I have come to see how unsuccessful the tests are. They do not show each students individual improvement through the year, instead if the child does not meet “the specific benchmark” set, than the test results show that the child fails. Instead of a child seeing how much they have improved and learned, they get a test to to tell them they did not meet the required level, that is not what school is about! I agree with you about needing the financial means to help children and change schools. If you are able to be in a smaller class, then you have a teacher that can give you more undivided one on one attention. When you are in a school that has the supplies and essentials for students to succeed, then the child will want to be there.
      I believe school is the most important thing in a child’s life, that is where they will receive most of their learning, and it is there that a child should feel they are worthy enough to learn and be taught. The child should always be encouraged and not discouraged.
      Danielle Rawlins

  8. I think some sort of standardized test is a way to measure a students knowledge. But I do not think that the current standardized tests are effectively doing that. If we changed the test and the standards by gearing them towards higher SAT scores or higher probability of getting into college I think the testing process would be more successful. There also should be multiple ways of testing knowledge and we need to offer students different ways of learning and testing. There are so many different styles of learning and standardized multiple choice test taking is one that I am sure a lot of people are not confident in doing. I personally am a horrible test taker when it comes to multiple choice and the pressure of sitting down and being timed. But that does not mean that I am less intelligent than someone who is a strong test taker. We need to offer multiple options for students to choose from to measure their knowledge.

  9. I worry that boycotting is too extreme and may only muddy the waters, making it difficult to see where the real problem is.

    In order to illustrate my point, I will need to use an analogy. I apologize for my wordiness and round about way of making my point.

    I used to make my money by fighting wild land fires during the summer. Firefighting is hard, dangerous work. In order to maintain safety, we depend a great deal on our leadership and chain of command. The basic structure of a 20 person crew works like this: There is one crew boss who is in charge of the entire unit. The rest of the crew is divided into squads of four or five, and each squad is lead by a “squad boss”. Orders are given to the crew boss by the government official, the crew boss then makes a plan, and gives his orders to the squad bosses. The squad bosses then give the orders to the squads. This communication happens via hand held radio, and the radio is seen as a sort of “badge” of authority.

    Now, I told you that, so I can tell you this: A good squad boss can be the difference between life and death. I have worked under an incompetent squad boss before, and it is rather scary. They will often put you in a dangerous situation, and will not be receptive if you protest. The problem is this, how does a crew boss know if a new squad boss is competent or not? How do I tell my crew boss that my squad boss is a tool?

    This is an issue that comes up often enough, that we are specially trained on how to deal with this situation. We are taught that the best way to revel an incompetent squad boss is to support said squad boss completely. When a squad boss gives us foolish orders, it is tempting to correct him/her, and do what we already know we should be doing. But when we do this, it only covers up his/her mistakes. Sometimes, it might be tempting to resist his/her orders, and even to set him/her up for failure. The problem here, is it is not clear to the crew boss that he/she has truly failed. It might look like the squad has sabotaged the squad boss, and the problem lies within our ability to follow orders.

    But if that squad boss is given all the resources that he/she should have, and he/she still fails, it is clear who is at fault. It is clear that the squad boss needs to be replaced. I have learned to trust the leadership’s ability to notice problems.

    Now, how does this relate to standardized testing? A new plan has been put in place by our elected officials. Right now, it is difficult to know if the plan is actually failing, or if it is being sabotaged by the teachers who want it to fail.

    My question is this, how is the plan working in schools where the teachers have tried to support it as best they can?

  10. I’ve had a unique opportunity this summer to observe the difference between teaching to the state test and teaching to the actual students’ learning needs. The challenge level that the Upward Bound students are at is being pressed in a really stimulating way, and it’s refreshing to see the positive, effective difference.

    I’ve noticed how teaching styles during summer classes like this are different from normal school year teaching. On the whole, this group of teachers and students are especially invested in success and improvement, as demonstrated by their consistent presence and engagement in class. The focus in teaching is – I think – more where it should be. The pressure to perform on standardized tests is absent in this environment, and so the teaching/learning process is far more effective and enjoyable for both parties. These classes feel much more like true college preparation: they are modeled after the structure of college classroom experiences and curriculum. For this reason, I feel this program is doing a pretty good job with legitimately preparing students for a collegiate future. They’re learning skills they will actually use in college classrooms, but that have nothing to do with standardized tests. I like the emphasis on critical thinking, and I really see these kids rising to the challenges they are given. If their mentors expect more from them, they will think they are capable of more, and will act accordingly.

    In short, kids are really getting shortchanged when they’re taught only to absorb and spew information on a state test.

    • Callie, this was a wonderful post! Your comment about teaching to the state test and teaching to the students learning was brilliant! In high school the teachers every day would pound it in our brain “this is what will be on the test,” “to pass the test you need to know this,” etc. I never once learned something because it was important. I only learned what I needed to for the tests. But once the tests are over, what is left for the students? They learned what they needed in order to pass the tests, but they didn’t learn what they needed in order to be successful in life.
      I think it is wonderful that you have had the opportunity this summer to experience different types of teachings. This allows you to see hands on what works for students and what doesn’t. I think more people need to become aware of the differences in teaching and what benefits the students most. We need to get more people involved and aware of the teaching in schools now days. There are 5 subjects, with lecture lessons and tests to see how much the student can retain and still pass. It is sad that school seems to be a production line in a factory! The child goes down the conveyer belt swallowing as much information as possible and once finished they are stamped and sent off to the world, even if they have no useful knowledge to bring.

  11. Testing might not be bad. And it might work well in tandem with other methods of evaluating teachers.

    I have been talking to my father on this issue. He is a high school vice principle in charge of curriculum. The school he works for is not here in Portland, so it is important to point out his situation may not be the same as the situation here. However, I think he still has some good insights.

    Here are some questions I asked him, and his answers. The answers are short because we were having this conversation while textile back and fourth all day.

    Q. Have you ever had to deal with an ineffective teacher?

    A. “Yes. It is very difficult because you are working with a human being. Patience. Sometimes it goes well.”

    Q. Have you ever had to fire a teacher for incompetence?

    A. “Not Really. Counseled out would be a better term.

    Q. You mean you convinced them teaching wasn’t the right job for them?

    A. “Yes, Remember you are working with professionals who have made a substantial investment in a career.”

    Q. Have standardized tests alerted you to poor teaching performance?

    A. “Walk through observations were/are key for me. But yes, we use data.”

    Q. What are your thoughts on standardized testing?

    A. “At first I thought it was terrible. But I have come to think it is important. It is not the ‘be all end all’ of teaching. It is important to focus on kids who don’t have reading skills, for example.”

    What I got out of my conversation with him is this: Standardized tests are not universally hated, and can be useful. Also, class observations and testing data can work well in tandem to identify problems.

  12. Wow Tyler you had hit a lot of points. Being from California we don’t have OAKs but very similar testing so I found it interesting that boycotts were happening against these tests and I think that is awesome. I find these tests unfair and I don’t want to say pointless because the idea of measuring where students are at grade level is good to know for data purposes but not to allow schools to be funded and to be something to hold kids back. There is too much pressure on these kids already and to add these tests which decide what will happen to their school is too much. It takes away from the classroom too and these test are usually given out in the spring a good two months before school gets out which leaves these kids (in their minds) nothing to do school is not important anymore. I know as a nanny when my 10 and 8 year olds were taking the OAKs they were so stressed out about not getting a high score and passing I asked them why were they so stress and nervous but they didn’t have an answer they just knew these were important tests. But once they were over I asked the girls what they will be doing in school they said nothing just having fun there is nothing for them to do.
    I do love how they are protesting the OAKs I know I went to a protest in San Francisco about school budget cuts and it was very empowering but this is something that need to be fought about because there are too many problems with these tests then benefits. I honestly see the points of the test but for data use not to stress kids out. Even kids know they are only going to school to take these tests and thats it after that its like summer vacation no reason to learn anymore which I think all the time in school is important not only before the OAKs.

  13. This topic is one that affects many people in Portland Public Schools. I myself recall the importance placed on standardized testing in the years leading up to college, and the heightened stress levels it caused in both the students and teachers lives. I feel as though it does not contribute to a good learning environment, as competition, disappointment, and anxiety are not beneficial to academic progress. While I think standardized testing can be a somewhat effective way of measuring a student’s academic strengths, many teachers do not explain the possible implications of testing, such as how different learning styles affecting test scores. Instead, students may feel they are not as smart as their classmates, get discourage, and be less motivated to try in school. This happened to be more than once during testing week. I feel it can be a potentially defective assessment of student’s individual strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. I feel that boycotting testing is a little extreme, but students should be given the option of being able to take them or not.
    I feel as though having mid terms and finals are beneficial, but taking important (and necessary) hours out of a student’s day to study for these test that ultimately have no effect on that students GPA is unnecessary. Furthermore, the funding that is used to conduct these tests could be going somewhere else that would be constructive to students learning and academic growth.

    Whitney Kilkenny

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