Headline News: "Our Kids Are Tested to Death"

K-12 Testing

The number of Texas tests has doubled in four years, with a majority of surveyed parents and teachers now concluding the Texas TAKS tests undermine learning. No Child Left Behind's Reading First program faces more charges of conflicts of interest and other problems, and Congress tackles standardized testing of Head Start students.


Texas Doubles Number of Tests: Texas students face almost twice as many tests this year as they did in 2002-03, with 203 tests mandated for every school district, up from 110 tests per year four years ago, according to the Dallas/Forth Worth Star-Telegram. What does this mean for individual students? A bilingual fifth grader, for example, may have to take nine tests before the year is out. According to the newspaper's calculations, this represents 25,941 pounds of testing materials, including instructions and the tests themselves. Of course, thanks to No Child Left Behind and the broader mania for test-driven instruction, teachers in every state describe similar burdens. Boston teachers explained the impact on their students at a Boston Teachers Union forum last spring on NCLB. A special education teacher said her students take five or six tests in the first six weeks of school alone. Brenda Chaney, an eighth-grade English teacher, simply said, "Our kids are tested to death."


Survey finds love lost for TAKS: Given the testing burden faced by teachers and students this year, it's not surprising that public opinion is souring on the Texas state test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). According to a survey of 500 teachers and 500 parents, more than 60% believe the TAKS has reduced learning to how well a student can take a test. "Both teachers and parents suggested the system has swung too far from one extreme [no testing or accountability] to another [too much testing and accountability]," said an analysis of the survey results. Texas legislators are considering replacing the high school TAKS with a battery of up to 12 end-of-course exams.


New Scrutiny for Reading First: No Child Left Behind's Reading First program faces growing criticism and more investigations of financial and political corruption, but none of this seems to have affected the often-flawed testing requirements of the law. The aggressively promoted and educationally harmful DIBELS test of early reading skills, for example, remains widely used (see Examiner, October 2006).


U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, appearing before congressional hearings, said an outside advisory committee would oversee the program and contractors found to have conflicts of interest would be removed. But soon after Spellings made that assertion, it was revealed that RMC Research Corp., which had helped with the initial implementation of Reading First, was also part of a team hired in 2003 to do an "independent" evaluation of the program. Senator Edward Kennedy characterized it as a "fox guarding the henhouse" arrangement. Emails sent by federal officials showed how local school officials were pressured to choose certain reading programs over others of equal or better quality. For example, New York City abandoned its chosen literacy plan, which blended phonics instruction with an emphasis on literature and writing, after receiving intense pressure from federal officials. And after federal officials warned school districts not to use Reading First money to pay for a popular program called Reading Recovery, the program received approval from the federal What Works Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse gave the program its highest rating for the program's effect on general reading achievement.


Congress on Verge of Eliminating Head Start Testing: On the contentious issue of testing the nation's youngest low-income schoolchildren, the Senate Education Committee is facing off against the federal agency that oversees Head Start. A bipartisan bill reported out of the committee seeks to abolish the National Reporting System (NRS), a federal test that has been given to hundreds of thousands of preschoolers in Head Start since 2003. The House of Representatives passed legislation last year to suspend use of NRS until an evaluation is conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, so this change is expected to be in the final law (see Examiner, August 2006). Meanwhile, the agency within the federal Department of Health and Human Services that runs Head Start not only recommends that the test still be given, but that it be expanded to include more than just math and literacy. If the test is dropped, it would be a victory for advocates of quality assessments for preschool students. Many early childhood experts have told Congress that the NRS is invalid and does not measure what it purports to measure.