Life is a High-stakes Test

by Juanita Doyon

September 25, 2003


In January 2002, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized and signed into law. Dubbed “No Child Left Behind,” the law requires testing of 3rd through 8th graders in every state that accepts federal Title 1 money—in other words, every state. It also requires that schools make improvements in test scores every year for every segment of their student population, including those with special circumstances and needs. By 2014 all children must pass state-level standardized tests.


Many of us who live and work in public schools saw big problems coming before the ink was dry during the celebrated signing of “No Child Left Behind.”


Many of the big problems come about from a misuse of words. The word standard, for example, is hoisted like so many solid gold letters on a trophy base, as if holding it up high will somehow create the will and the method for all of our children to come in first in the education race. College for all---or else!


Newsflash: There’s no such thing as a standard child. Thank God!


Accountability is another keyword in the sentence of education reform. In legislative halls and Business Roundtable conference rooms, it has become synonymous with a shorter word---test. One has to wonder, would the Enron executives have passed a pencil and paper test on ethics? Probably, which confirms the oxymoronic association between the words accountability and test.


It may sound perfectly reasonable to require all children to pass a simple, grade-level test in reading and math in grades three though eight. But it’s important to realize that no state-level test is simple. When we take the concept of testing children out of the hands of the teacher and school, it changes its very nature. In some senses, it loses its humanity and in others it amplifies human imperfection, while removing any hope for correction. If a teacher in a classroom makes a mistake with a test answer key, 27 children are given an incorrect grade. Chances are, one of the children or one of their parents will bring the mistake to the attention of the teacher and everyone’s grade will be adjusted. But, if a testing company, such as NCS Pearson, makes a mistake in a grading key, thousands upon thousands of students are given incorrect scores, no one, not even the teachers who administered the test, get to see the results to know a mistake was made, and, if a parent just happens to question the results, it takes a court order to investigate the scores.


So, how do testing companies and state education departments define standard these days?  On state tests, cut scores are often set after the test is administered. Do test companies and authors of test questions really not know what kids at specific grade levels should know? Apparently they don’t in New York, considering the fallout from the recent physics test. There is madness in the methods of test grading. It’s a numbers game---emphasis on the gaming. If too many students get a question correct, the question is often thrown out. Wouldn’t want to reward too many kids with a good score. Most often, one question is the line between pass and fail, meaning that by reworking a cut score by one question, thousands of students jump the line or fall backward into the pit of failure. Several states have re-graded large categories of tests---all state writing tests or all 12th grade math tests, for example---to adjust scores after too many students passed or failed on the first try. What are the standards for testing and grading companies? The world may never know.


Let’s make a leap of faith/dream world assumption that state tests will be grade-level appropriate, scored correctly and returned in a timely manner. Then would testing equal accountability? Then would we “no longer be lying to each other about who we are leaving behind,” as one school policy guru stated in a radio interview recently? Don’t bet on it. What generally happens when too much emphasis is put on test scores is that those scores and the children behind them become the targets of manipulation.


One common practice for test score elevation is what I refer to as educational triage. Students who are most apt to perform above the test cut score with a little extra help are given that extra help, while students who struggle at the bottom tend to be ignored. State and federal accountability laws are no respecters of  person, and no respecters of students who work very hard for self-improvement, even though there is no chance of passing the arbitrary cut score on the state test.


When bottom line numbers become the goal and schools are in danger of punishment if they don’t rise, the needs of some of the children are set aside in the quest for school survival. Thus, the goal of “No Child Left Behind” becomes a moot point.


The whine of the week from those who believe in the law but think it needs a little tinkering has been that special education and English language learners should be exempt from the testing.  This would tweak the law so that state superintendents and principals would like it a little better. The problem is, if testing is the form of accountability we are using, this request exempts programs that serve these students from the accountability picture. No one test can measure the abilities of all students. One test can measure the abilities of some students, but it will better measure the inabilities of others.


Mickey VanDerwerker, a mom and education activist in Virginia sums the situation up very well, “The real answer is that high-stakes standardized testing is bad for ALL kids. ALL. There needs to be real accountability not sham accountability. One size doesn't fit all.” State-level, standardized testing is sham accountability.


No matter how many terms like tweak or adjust or adapt or fine-tune are used in an attempt to rationalize the law, this is not a case of devil in the details. The devil is the law itself which requires the impossible: the standardization of humanity within our schools.


Do we hold students who are learning to understand English to the same standards in English reading as we do students who were born into English-speaking homes? Florida does. Many of the 33,000 students who are repeating 3rd grade this year speak Spanish as their first language. When teachers and parents protest that these children are being unjustly judged, the response from on high is that social promotion is the enemy. I guess blind justice from the state is a better criterion for making decisions about the education of third graders---wouldn’t want teachers and parents to deal in a case by case manner with eight-year-olds.


As a mother of four, I know that even children within the same family have very different attitudes, abilities and interests.  All four of my children play musical instruments.  Should my husband and I demand that the younger three live up to the standard set by their older sister, who had the attitude, ability and interest in music that manifested itself into a career as a band teacher with a second college degree in percussion performance?  I think not, although they enjoy their own skills on a variety of instruments. What if current state standards had been in place when my band teacher daughter had been in high school? If she had scored poorly in a math class, she might have been tracked into two math classes, losing the opportunity to take band as an elective. If she had failed the state reading test, she may have been tracked into two language arts classes---hardly a good replacement for the fine art of band.  All of my children are average or above average in required subjects. Lucky for them.  Also lucky for them they are old enough to miss most of the standards and testing insanity.


The best education takes place when parents and teachers communicate well and work together. Even better education takes place when parents and teachers have the resources to reach all children and when overkill paperwork and testing mandates don’t take time away from real teaching and learning. I have a simple solution to all this complicated accountability talk.  How about we boot the federal government who foots a mere nine percent of the bill out of the school micromanagement business? How about we tell the Business Roundtable to write some better standards for business practices and get out of the education business? Education is the “business” of parents and teachers. Life is a high-stakes test, especially for poor children and children with special needs. No paper and pencil imitations required.


Juanita Doyon is the author of Not With Our Kids You Don’t! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, Heinemann, 2003. She is also the director of Mothers Against WASL.  Juanita lives in Spanaway, Washington, and her email address is