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Education experts debate high-stakes testing in public schools

As schools across the nation continue to roll out changes in response to 2010 national education standards, standardized testing has once again sparked controversy over its role in assessing both student and teacher performance in public schools.

A panel of educational leaders tackled the issue of testing Monday morning as part of NBC’s fourth annual Education Nation Summit, a three-day series of panels and discussions exploring “What It Takes” to ensure students are prepared for college and careers.

The new national academic standards known as the Common Core are being voluntarily implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C. While the four panel participants generally agreed that common standards and testing were essential, the group was divided over the “high stakes” role of tests as a way to assess teacher performance and student preparedness.

“The problem is today we are using them only solely for accountability purposes, linking student test scores to teacher performances,” said Dr. Joshua Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

 “I don’t know any business that motivates its employees by shaming them and demonizing them,” he said.

Paul Pastorek, senior advisor for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and former Louisiana state superintendent, disagreed.

“If we want to hold people accountable, we have to measure what they’re doing,” he said.

Pastorek said tests were essential in measuring how schools as well as teachers perform and that schools that do not perform well should be held accountable.

“It needs to be high stakes for the kids and for the adults,” he said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, echoed the sentiment saying that while states should move ahead with implementation of Common Core standards, a moratorium should be issued on the high-stakes aspects of the tests. Weingarten added that before teachers could be punished for student test scores the new tests first needed to be aligned with what teachers were doing in schools.

“Right now we have a misalignment,” Weingarten said. “Testing has now replaced instruction and that’s a bad place for us to be.”

Weingarten added that testing was not enough and capstone projects and other project-based instruction should be taken into account. “When testing becomes the center piece of a teacher evaluation, people are focusing on rote memorization,” she said. 

New York City Department of Education Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said schools could no longer wait to begin implementing higher testing standards.

“We have a responsibility to make sure we’re focused and not lying to our parents and not lying to our students,” he said.

 In New York, students began taking new high-stakes standardized tests aligned with the Common Core Standards in the 2012 school year.

“We knew it was not going to be easy but we saw our students and work force respond in a way that to me was successful,” he said. “In a state like New York I give them a lot of credit for rolling it out early.”

Walcott said that as students continued to be taught the new standards, test results “each year will be stronger and stronger."

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