High-stakes testing wastes our time, money and talent

From the Orlando sentinel, By Rick Roach,

Scoring in bowling is pretty easily understood. You roll the ball and count the pins knocked down. The more pins down, the higher the score. Fair enough.

Imagine a new bowling alley opened. You’ve been invited to go play by a couple of people you’ve just met. There’s an incentive. For promotional purposes, the alley’s management will allow the highest scorer of every game to bowl free for a year. You’re an excellent bowler, so off you go.

Game over. New friend No. 1 turns out to be a pro. He rolls strike after strike and ends the game with an impressive 250 out of the possible 300. Friend No. 2 is as bad as No. 1 is good and bowls a sorry 76. Your score: not 250, but, nevertheless, an impressive 220.

No free game for you or friend No. 2. In fact, management takes your names and says you’re welcome to come and watch or eat in the restaurant but not to bowl. They’ll give you another shot if you’ll bring a year’s receipts from another bowling alley proving that you’ve been there every week working on improving your game.

Go with me to any high school in Florida and you’ll see a version of that game, courtesy of the Florida Department of Education.

Here in Orange County last year, 17,000 high-school students failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading test. About 20 percent of them — some with genuine reading problems, some just learning English — are spending this year in remedial-reading classes.

Which is where they should be. Reading is a critical life skill.

But also in those remedial-reading classes are kids with 3.0 grade-point averages, kids who have taken and passed honors classes, kids who have taken and passed Advanced Placement classes, kids enrolled in International Baccalaureate programs.

What’s going on here?

There’s a simple answer. Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test questions ordinarily have at least two good answers, but one (in the opinion of the writer of the test item) is best. That one answer is equivalent to a strike in bowling. The second-best answer is the bowler picking up high points and spares (your 220), but that dumps you into the same league as gutter-balling friend No. 2 with the 76.

If you think that’s unfair, if you think it makes no sense that taxpayers have to pick up the tab for remedial-reading classes for thousands of kids who know perfectly well how to read, if you think it’s unfair that those kids will spend the year sitting in those classes instead of in music or art or other elective classes, join me in protesting the misuse and abuse of high-stakes testing.

The situation is going to get a lot worse.

Decision-makers in Tallahassee have mandated whole new batteries of pass-fail, end-of-course exams that work the same way — exams that, in a single sitting, can cancel out 180 days of class work and teacher judgment; exams that won’t just keep kids from taking electives but will keep them from graduating; exams that will put many more of them on the street with nothing to do and no place to go; exams that will channel a lot more of your tax dollars away from schools and into the bottom lines of testing companies.

Here’s one way to do it: Ask candidates for state office how they feel, not just about the FCAT — which is about to go away — but, about the new all-or-nothing high-stakes tests that, according to many, will be the FCAT on steroids.

How do they feel about tests that nobody but the testing company is allowed to see shaping the futures of kids that their commitment to public office put in their care?

I’m reading a book titled “Readicide,” by Kelly Gallagher. Teaching to tests isn’t the problem, he says. The problem is teaching to shallow tests. The problem is out of control, all-consuming teaching to shallow tests.

This testing insanity, mandated by politicians who may be well-meaning but are ignorant of the unintended consequences of their actions, must stop.

Rick Roach is a member of the Orange County School Board.


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