The Issue of Standardized Testing in Public Schools

By, Qirrat Anwar

Earlier this fall, the Boston Public Schools committee announced that 26 schools, ranging from East Boston to West Roxbury, are at risk of being declared underperforming on standardized testing. Nine Boston public schools, in fact, have already been declared underperforming due to students’ low MCAS scores.

Tommy Chang, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, regards this issue as extremely urgent due to the fact that the schools affected are inhabited by some of the most marginalized students; they educate a total of about 12,000 minority students. The declaration of underperformance could lead to the state taking control of said schools and the removal of principals and teachers from those schools.

The Boston Public School District tried to take matters into its own hands and fix the issue by cutting the number of standardized tests students are required to take in lower-performing schools in half. A statement released by the Boston Public School District expresses that “while BPS continues to recognize that testing and formative-progress monitoring are strong tools to serve our students, the district shares concerns raised by families, educators, community partners, Boston School Committee members and the Boston Teachers Union over the increase in student assessments in recent years.” The committee believes that reducing the number of tests given will increase classroom time and therefore increase scores on tests that are taken.

But perhaps the tests themselves are not truly the problem. Standardized tests like the MCAS are designed to test if students are comfortable and successful at applying general skills to specific subjects. Ms. Labieniec, having written similar test questions before, gave insight that the guidelines for creating these tests “are all about making sure that there is no leading or biased language in the question, that no assumptions about common experience are made and that the language is clear and as simple as possible.”

So what exactly is the problem? Ms Labieniec suggests “the fact that students cannot access resources (so it relies on memory), the fact that they are given only one or two days (which may be a day where the student is just off), the fact that English language learners have different struggles with the test,  and the fact that it is a timed test out of necessity” are all probable flaws of high-stake standardized testing such as the MCAS. Ideally, when results of standardized tests are recieved, schools should address questions about teacher training, curriculum, and overall school structure; standardized tests offer important information on how to improve and refine a school’s system and should be used like so. “But to use test scores alone as an indicator of a school’s success misses the mark entirely.  Basing “performance” on standardized tests alone is a myopic view, especially because of how complex and dynamic a school community is,” says Ms. Labieniec. For funding and resources to be pulled from these schools would simply be destructive. Lia K., Class VII, also seems to agree. She remarks that “a student might not be great at standardized testing or even unfamiliar with a particular test, but have a lot of creative potential; this would put them in a very difficult situation if low performance on a test like the MCAS leads to the school’s art program getting cut.”

As Winsor is a private school, we as students are extremely lucky that we do not have to rely on performance on standardized testing for funding. We are fortunate that teachers, like Ms. Labieniec “review the curricula at the departmental level […] and give assessments that [they] design and believe do a good job measuring [students’] understanding of the material.” Our independence gives freedom to our teachers and allows us to have a learning experience that is able to mold to each individual student, rather than having a generalized system that needs to be followed.

Mayor Marty Walsh affirmed that both he and the committee are improving schools at the bottom and helping them reach higher status amongst public schools nationwide.  Walsh revealed  in a recent statement that “this year’s budget includes an additional $16 million for our lower-performing schools and it’s important that we continue to provide focus and supports to the schools and students that need them most.”

The decision to declare or not declare these schools as underperforming will be known when the latest rounds of MCAS results is released by the state later this fall.