OPINION: Don’t hold students accountable for Milestones scores this year

A Fulton teacher writes: "The decision of the state board to inflict standardized high-stakes testing upon my students with no choice is harmful." (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A Fulton teacher writes: "The decision of the state board to inflict standardized high-stakes testing upon my students with no choice is harmful." (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Fulton teacher says these are not normal times and high-stakes exams won’t help anyone

In a guest column, a Fulton County teacher says the Georgia Board of Education’s proposal to factor Milestones test scores into high school grades reflects the mistaken notion that testing equals learning. A board committee will discuss the proposal today.

The state board split with state Schools Superintendent Richard Woods last month when it refused to reduce the weight of the state exams to essentially zero. The Georgia Milestones normally count for 20% of the grades in core high school courses, but Woods asked the board to weight the tests at 0.01% of a course grade.

As the AJC reported. “Richard Woods had argued that the tests, which influence grade point averages and, therefore, college admissions and scholarships, would make an already difficult school year more stressful and would also be unfair. Many students are attending online because their families are concerned about becoming infected or because their school district isn’t offering in-person classes.”

The state board instead voted 9-3 to weight the scores at 10%, but delayed a final vote until public comment could be collected. Commenting ended Monday, and the board will take a final vote Thursday. But it is likely to be discussed at a committee meeting of the board today. Watch it here at 1 p.m.

Jordan Kohanim has been teaching in Fulton County for 14 years. She has twice won teacher of the year at her schools, and has presented at both the state and national conventions for the Council of Teachers of English. She now teaches 11th grade ELA and Yearbook at Milton High School.

Kohanim has written for the blog in the past. And I am thrilled to have her back. Read this piece and you will understand why.

By Jordan Kohanim

Can we please stop pretending this is normal?

Let’s be perfectly clear: what the United States education system is attempting to do right now has never been done in the history of this country. The epidemic that we are currently in is most often compared to the 1918 Influenza epidemic. During that time, schools were shuttered (excluding three), and students did not return to school for months. The schools that were open were kept open because it was deemed that student home life was more dangerous than being at school. [Those schools' purpose was to clothe, feed, and monitor student safety. It was less about learning and more about keeping children off the streets.

Luckily, we have an opportunity to actually have some learning take place amidst a sea of turmoil. Because of technology, some sense of normalcy can be ensured.

Sense is the operative word.

I am about to make myself very unpopular.

I want my school to remain open. I want face-to-face learning. I have a myriad of reasons for this, most of them selfish. I also know that my county has done the best they can by allowing choice in the matter. That being said, the decision of the state board to inflict standardized high-stakes testing upon my students with no choice is harmful.

I’ll repeat that—it is harmful. It assumes normalcy reflecting a monumental disconnect.

In normal times I’ve written about my view on the dangers of high-stakes testing, and how it provides bad data that can be used in creating bad policy. But let’s ignore the mountains of research that argue that standardized, high-stakes testing doesn’t actually test learning and that it can actually work against motivating students to learn.

So too, let us cast aside the argument that such testing actually only motivates teachers to teach rote memorization—the rush and flush method—that then limits their time to focus on richer learning like portfolios and labs

Fulton County teacher Jordan Kohanim
Fulton County teacher Jordan Kohanim

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

Instead, let’s look at what the state Board of Education claims are its reasons for not only having the tests, but also rejecting the Georgia Schools superintendent’s request to lower the numeric impact of the test.

One of the reasons cited in a recent AJC article is that without a numeric impact, the test will not be taken seriously by students. To that I reply, you are correct.

But if that is true, why then do we insist on giving interim progress assessments, as mandated by the counties and states, that also have no numeric weight? I teach 11th grade Language Arts and I have administered at least three non-weighted assessments this year—with more to come. Bad data? Why then do we insist upon it?

Further- they shouldn’t take the test seriously. Yes. I said it. Pragmatically speaking, students are taking the tests both in person and at home. No matter how many measures are in place, the students scores will reflect their access to outside materials during the test. If you think there is a perfect system to keep students at home from cheating during an online-administered test, then I have some lessons on logic I’d love to share with you.

Moreover, these tests do not account for students' access to stable internet, child care, safety, or silence. The schools that remained open during the 1900′s epidemic did so because it was more difficult for the children to stay at home. Now, we have students who have to stay at home because of immunocompromised family members, and they may be caring for siblings. I think of myself when I say this because my brother, who is profoundly mentally challenged, would have been in my care the entire school day during this type of epidemic. I would have had to care for him, and he cannot be left alone for even a minute. I would have failed the test that I am now required to levy on my students. What would that test have accurately measured? My ability to find 90 minutes to quietly test? There are many students in this situation and tacking a 10% weight to this test is not measuring anything but their stress level (which would be a more valuable test, but I digress).

Think what you want about Betsy DeVos, but her motivations for keeping the test are very clear: “Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment”

The first reason Ms. DeVos cites is a common misconception by those who are in the field of educational policy but who have never taught: testing equals learning. Vulnerable students don’t actually learn anything from testing and conversely, are more harmed by high-stakes testing than their more affluent peers. This is true in “normal” times. We are not in normal times. Now, the students Ms. Devos is attempting to protect are actually suffering from more trauma as parents lose jobs and they may have to work more to help keep themselves and their families fed and housed.

The second reason Ms. DeVos points out is not only untrue—nothing is being abandoned, we are on pause—but also should never have been a reason in the first place. The fact that two political parties were able to come to an agreement should not take precedent over my kids' mental and educational health. It is not the responsibility of my students to shoulder the government’s inability to agree. Put that burden elsewhere.

I’ll end by saying the vast majority of parents do not want the tests to count for 10% (which is numerically significant). The vast majority of teachers are aware that the tests do not gauge their effectiveness. And the students do not need the additional stress of such tests affecting their grade in a time that is not normal. In unprecedented times, leadership should reflect only the best intentions of the populace. Considering those points, upon whose behalf is the state school board working?

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