High-stakes testing called into question

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Four Rhode Island school districts – Coventry, East Providence, Providence and Woonsocket – were flagged for suspicious test scores between 2008 and 2011 in a recent study of standardized testing by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The results have prompted debate on the need for high-stakes testing to evaluate teacher effectiveness and student proficiency. 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigated 196 school districts nationwide and “flagged” those districts where more than 10 percent of classes – which are composed of all students enrolled in the same grade at the same school – demonstrated unusually high or low performance compared to the norm. 

In Coventry, 14.29 percent of classes were flagged for abnormal performance in 2009, but this number dropped to below 4 percent in 2011, the study showed. In 2009, 12.5 percent of classes in East Providence scored unusually high or low. Nearly 30 percent of classes in the Woonsocket district demonstrated a large number of scores outside the norm in 2008, a rate more than double that of any other Rhode Island school district that year. Providence classes were flagged at rates of 13.27 percent in 2008 and 11.21 percent in 2011, but abnormal score levels fell below 10 percent in the years between.

Since the results were released in March, East Providence has been removed from the list of school districts with unusual test score patterns, said Elliot Krieger, spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Education. There have been few instances of testing irregularities in the state over the past decade, and in each case, “educators involved were required to receive additional training in proper procedures for test administration,” he added. 

“There was no cheating and nothing was ever found to be fraudulent” in Woonsocket, said Giovanna Donoyan, superintendent of Woonsocket School District. She said Woonsocket schools were flagged due to an administrative error within the district  – the reading booklets for the standardized test were distributed and collected out of order, and in some cases they were stored in open areas. 

Despite the Journal-Constitution’s report, Donoyan said she maintains “full confidence in the honesty and integrity of the educators and students in Rhode Island.” 

The Journal-Constitution began auditing the standardized testing process in part to investigate the role standardized testing plays in teacher evaluations. Rhode Island educators receive yearly evaluations based on standardized test results. Teachers that consistently receive evaluations of “ineffective” lose their certifications. 

“The emphasis on standardized testing puts too much pressure on teachers and detracts from their ability to teach effectively,” said Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick. The education system should allow teachers more freedom to improve their teaching, she said. 

Though some legislators are looking to limit the impact of standardized tests in schools, the Rhode Island Department of Education plans to expand testing requirements.

In an attempt to more accurately assess students, the Rhode Island Department of Education  instituted a standardized testing requirement that will begin in 2014. In a letter to high school freshmen and their families, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist wrote that beginning with students graduating in 2015, students must test at Level 2 – partially proficient – in reading and math on the state assessment in order to graduate high school. 

In opposition to the Department of Education’s emphasis on “high-risk testing,” Naughton and Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, recently introduced legislation that would not require a standardized test to evaluate a student’s eligibility to receive a diploma. “I fear that these standardized tests will diminish the creativity of teachers and force them to ‘teach to the test,'” Naughton said.

Advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have voiced support for removing the testing requirement due to their disproportionate effects on students. The “high-stakes” testing requirement “will have a stunning and severe adverse impact on every community in the state,” said Steve Brown, executive director for the Rhode Island ACLU. Forty-four percent of students in the state would risk not graduating under these new requirements, and most of these students would be black, Latino or special needs, according to Rhode Island ACLU projections. 

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