Are State and Federal Exams Dragging Down Philly Schools?

As ed battles rage, Council to consider the burden standardized tests place on school system.

With funding battles likely to rage in City Hall this week, City Council appears prepared to open another front in the battle over public education in Philly — this time, the target is the growing burden of standardized testing on public schools.

The council’s Committee on Education will meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss whether to hold hearings on the growing burden of standardized tests required by state and federal authorities, and whether they ultimately harm or help the education received by Philadelphia students.

“What are we sacrificing, education-wise, for all these required tests?” asked Sean McMonagle, legislative aide to Councilman Mark Squilla, who introduced the resolution calling for hearings.

Raven Hill, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia School District, said school officials would be on hand at Wednesday’s hearing to describe how they use the test results, but added: “We’re not taking a position.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, is ready to offer testimony against the practice.

“It’s problematic in that the emphasis being placed on standardized testing is not to guide instruction or improve education, but as a punitive measure, a gotcha game for teachers,” said George Jackson, PFT spokesman.

He added: “More close to home: As much instruction time is lost teaching to the test, it’s even worse in Philadelphia, where teachers aren’t given the resources to teach to the test.”

Indeed, over the summer research by Temple University’s Meredith Broussard revealed that the same companies that produce standardized tests also produce textbooks and teaching materials — students with access to the latter often performed well on the former. But Philadelphia students rarely have access to the current instructional materials. 

“I was really surprised to discover that the schools don’t have the textbooks or the other learning materials that would allow the students to learn the material that’s on the test,” Broussard told Philly Mag in July.

Certainly, the resolution being considered by the committee doesn’t sound enamored of standardized testing: It cites the drain on school resources, the hampering of teachers, and the negative effects on students from challenged backgrounds. (See below.)

The ongoing cheating scandal adds weight to the question. Several former Philadelphia principals have been charged with changing test responses on standardized tests in order to improve their school’s results; more than 130 educators have been implicated in the scandal. 

The committee meets at 3 p.m. Wednesday in City Council chambers.

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The resolution text:

WHEREAS, Philadelphia public school students attend schools that are dangerously under-resourced; and

WHEREAS, The State of Pennsylvania is one of only three states that does not have an education funding formula in place that guarantees funds for districts are distributed according to need; and

WHEREAS, In this climate of austerity, standardized testing requirements have continued to increase.  The costs associated with standardized testing, development, administration and technology for online testing may mean that there will be fewer funds available for classroom resources; and

WHEREAS, The over reliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability systems may be undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators’ efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences that promote innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and deep subject-matter knowledge that will allow students to thrive in an increasingly global society and economy; and

WHEREAS, “Cut scores”, which determine if a student is proficient or underachieving, may have negative effects for students from all backgrounds, especially low-income students, English language learners, children of color, and those with disabilities; and

WHEREAS, The use of standardized testing may be used to make major decisions that will affect individual students, educators and schools; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Council of the City of Philadelphia authorizes hearings to be conducted to understand the impact the current regime of high-stakes standardized testing is having on schools, teachers, and children. To also explore options that may better support engaging school experiences, joy in learning, depth of thought and breadth of knowledge for students.