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Standardized testing becomes the great divide in schools policy

Use of standardized tests in schools is growing, but so is push-back – an issue playing out in L.A. school board elections.

March 03, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Teachers at Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles rally in 2009 to protest what they call another layer of testing. Standardized testing is on the rise in U.S. schools, but so is resistance to it in some places.
Teachers at Emerson Middle School in Los Angeles rally in 2009 to protest… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

In Texas, more than 10,000 people joined a recent rally to protest it. In Seattle, high school teachers launched a boycott over it. And in Los Angeles, school board candidates are arguing over it — a debate considered so crucial to the future of education reform that outside donors have poured millions into the campaigns.

The growing use of standardized tests to assess students and teachers is sparking a push-back nationwide in what has become one of the greatest divides in educational policy. Even as the federal government and major school districts in Chicago, New York and elsewhere continue to promote testing, counter-pressure is growing to step back from it.

In California, Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has recommended the elimination of state standardized tests in English and math for second-, ninth- and 10th-graders because they are not required by the federal government, a proposal that would require approval by the Legislature and governor. He is also exploring the possibility of using one test for multiple purposes, including high school graduation and readiness for college.

"I do believe we should have fewer tests, and I think the pendulum may be swinging in that direction," Torlakson said. "There's a frustration I hear from teachers, parents and administrators that there is too much testing and too much time spent preparing for testing."

The use of standardized exams began to accelerate under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law, which required more frequent assessments to monitor how well schools were helping all children read, write and do math at grade level. Since then, the federal government and major foundations have also encouraged districts to use student test scores to evaluate teacher quality — often offering lucrative grants to do so.

Testing has also emerged as an issue among the major forces funding campaigns in Tuesday's L.A. Unified school board races, which have drawn national attention and more than $4.4 million in outside funding so far — including $1 million from New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to support candidates who favor using test results in teacher evaluations, among other policies.

"These school board campaigns have become a referendum on the role of testing in the teacher evaluation process," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "These races will have some impact on the way Los Angeles schools are run but are likely to have a much larger impact on the national debate."

But Schnur said any wholesale backing off of standardized test scores is not what Californians actually support. In a USC Dornsife/Times poll on education in 2011, Californians said they backed the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations but believed they should not make up the majority of an instructor's rating.

Using test scores in evaluations has been embraced in L.A. Unified by Supt. John Deasy and his school board allies — and fiercely fought by United Teachers Los Angeles, which is financially participating in two of the three races.

In the 4th District covering the Westside and western San Fernando Valley, for instance, incumbent Steve Zimmer has fought one of Deasy's favored evaluation methods for individual teachers, called value-added, which uses a mathematical formula to estimate how much an instructor contributes to student performance after controlling for race, English ability and other factors.

Challenger Kate Anderson, an attorney and parent, supports value-added — along with Deasy's recommendation to use student test scores and other data for 30% of a teacher's evaluation. She has received at least $1 million from the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee launched by outgoing L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to support Deasy and data-driven approaches in teacher evaluations and other policies.

In the 2nd District, incumbent and board President Monica Garcia is a strong Deasy ally who supports value-added and its use in teacher evaluations. She is being challenged by union-backed candidates who believe standardized tests are being misused and overused.

The nation's biggest backlash against standardized testing is taking place in Texas, where most students are required to pass 15 exams to graduate. More than 10,000 people recently rallied in Austin, the state capital, to demand fewer tests and more school funding. And nearly 900 school districts representing more than 90% of Texas public school students have passed a resolution to reduce testing and mandate no fixed role for test scores in teacher evaluations.

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