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The debate around and local response to standardized testing

Photo courtesy of Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu via Unsplash

The debate surrounding standardized tests has heightened in the last couple of decades – some argue that they are efficient, others counter they are biased. 

Regardless of which side you’re on, in recent years the focus has been on the tests instead of the students. 

Karen Cailotto, who teaches Child Development at Liberty High School, said there is a “laser focus” on standards and scores for core classes.

“Education is extremely focused on results,” Cailotto said. “CTE (Career Technical Education) is not under the same kind of scrutiny as core classes.”

Although the Liberty teacher’s class – which is part of the TLC (Teaching and Learning Careers) Academy on the Brentwood campus – does not have the same pressure as other programs and courses, local communities are responding to the extreme focus on tests by prioritizing student learning and using standardized tests to track the progression of the learning. 

The shift to better preparing students for successful futures is demonstrated by the goal of the Liberty Union High School District. 

“The goal is to prepare students for post-high school experiences,” Superintendent Eric Volta said. 

Liberty – located in Contra Costa County, California – checks on the progress of this goal through monitoring the school’s dashboard, meeting with students, surveys and more. 

Cailotto agrees that it is important for students to meet standards since they are meant to prepare them for college. She explained how the TLC classes prepare teens by “trying to create career readiness and professional standards.”

“The main goal is for everyone to graduate college and be career ready,” Cailotto added. 

Measuring student knowledge

The Glossary of Education Reform – an online resource created by the nonprofit Great Schools Partnership – defines standardized tests as those that require everyone to answer the same questions in the same way and is scored consistently. Standardized tests administered in California include the SAT and ACT; the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress testing (CAASPP); district assessments and AP Exams.

While standardized tests date as far back as 1865, according to Lehigh University’s College of Education, they surged in use after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was enacted in 2002, according to the California Department of Education. In 2015, due to criticism surrounding its emphasis on standardized testing, NCLB was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The U.S. Department of Education reports that the ESSA requirements include preparing students for success in college and careers by teaching them “high academic standards” and making people and communities aware of “vital information” through statewide assessments – or in other words, standardized tests.

The National Test Prep Association argues that standardized tests – across different fields – assess competency, which applies to K-12 tests. They continued that, due to differences in standards between states, standardized tests are the “most efficient and effective tools for measuring student knowledge, ability and achievement.” However, when it comes to standardized testing, it is important to note that there are various factors that influence the score.

Cailotto said one factor that influences test scores is cultural bias. The National Education Association (NEA) also argues that standardized tests are biased in their article “The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing.”

“Since their inception almost a century ago, the tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system,” the NEA reports on its website. “Decades of research demonstrate that Black, Latin(o/a/x) and Native students, as well as students from some Asian groups, experience bias from standardized tests administered from early childhood through college.”

Liberty for all

Another factor that influences standardized test scores is the test environment. Liberty High School teacher Gina Capelli, who teaches Psychology and AP Psychology, gave an example of differences in testing conditions. 

At her school, students take the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test over the course of four days – testing two hours per day – while some schools test all in one day. Liberty’s method helps minimize the amount of fatigue experienced by students, which could negatively impact their test score. 

“Unless the conditions are the same, scores are not comparable,” Capelli said.

“Everything we do is to improve student learning that hopefully is illustrated in an increase in our standardized test scores,” Superintendent Volta said.

Liberty alum Alex Grossetete is a freshman attending Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. He said he remembers how teachers would think he wasn’t smart enough, accusing him of not studying or paying attention in class due to his low test scores.  

“Teachers would also put me down after these low test scores and tell me (not recommend) that I needed a support class” and that he wasn’t “going to make it far in getting my education,” the 2023 graduate said. “They blamed my behavior in class for these low test scores. But it was really because standardized testing didn’t work for me and a lot of kids with similar struggles as me. 

“These standardized tests in high school are not adapting to many learning disabilities that are very common and they are not adapting because standardized testing is the most easy and simple way for schools and teachers,” Grossetete added. “[They] are also reliant on memory and that was very difficult for me because I have ADHD, which makes it hard for me to retain and memorize material that was going to be on these tests.”

LCAP Goals  

The district’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP goals):

 The Liberty Union High School District LCAP includes three goals, which are to: “provide a physically and emotionally supportive school environment which supports student learning; prepare students for career and college by providing a rigorous and stimulating curriculum and instructional program; [and recognize] the need for stakeholder involvement.”

 The 2022-23 LCAP also highlights how the district will continue to provide mental, social and emotional support for students, as well as staff development, upgraded and modernized facilities and a multitiered system of support for students.

 Learn more about the plan on the district website.

*Additional resources: 

History of Standardized Testing | Lehigh University College of Education

How Standardized Testing Benefits Society

The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing

Loujain Habibi is an 11th grader at Liberty High School in Brentwood.

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