The Only High Stakes Test

My two older children, Ben (grade 5) and Elisabeth (grade 4), start NECAP (New England Comprehensive Assessment Program) testing today.  My youngest daughter, Emma, is too young to be tortured by them.

But, Ben and Elisabeth join all 3-8 and 11th grade students in New Hampshire whose October is ruined by these tests.  Learning comes to a halt, rules are no longer enforced, (iPods and gum chewing are encouraged because they “help” kids score well on their test – which makes me wonder why they aren’t encouraged all year?) parents are asked to be parents and get their kids to bed early and feed them breakfast, and kids are asked to sit still and bubble-in circles for up to 3 hours each day.

The scary thing for me is that Ben’s test (as a fifth grader) is particular important.  Next year, he will enter the middle school.  The Cooperative Middle School, which educates nearly 1400 middle school students from 6 communities and works under the auspices of The Exeter Region Cooperative School Board, uses multiple data points to sort kids, most notable in math.  One of the most vital pieces of information that is used to sort incoming fifth grade students is their performance on their NECAP tests.  If Ben does well on this test as a 10 year-old, 5th grade student he will be sorted into the higher level math class as an 11 year-old, 6th grade student, which will allow him to take Algebra as a 13 year-old, 8th grade student, which will make Geometry an option for him as a 14 year-old, 9th grade student, which will have him line to take Calculus as an 18 year old, 12th grade student, which will look really good on his high school transcript as he applies to college.

If he doesn’t do well on this test, he could be sorted into a lower level math class, which means he will learn less math, which means he will not do well on future NECAP tests, which means he will not be sorted “up” to a higher math class, which means he will not be eligible to take Algebra (even though he may be ready) until he is in the 9th grade, which would get him in the “wrong” track as a freshman in high school, which means that his high school transcript, with less math, will limit his college options.

As a result, it could be argued that this 5th grade test is his ONLY high stakes test.

It could also be argued that it is partly my fault.

As part of the leadership team of CMS during this past decade of accountability, I preached the need to use data to inform instruction.  I preached the use of data to make informed decisions about student placement.  I touted the importance of using standardized data over the more “imprecise” and “unscientific” teacher assessment.  This inflexible system  was fine-tuned during my tenure as the Curriculum Administrator of CMS and it is something I deeply regret.  Of course, in today’s age of testing and accountability, I’m sure that others who may have been in that position would have done the same, but hindsight tells me I should have been better than them.  I should have known of the trappings of testing and sorting of 10 year old kids.  I should have fought harder against a system that acted as a filter instead of a pump.

When Ben left this morning I was tempted to talk to him about the importance of taking the NECAP tests seriously even though I know they mean very little to who he is as a learner, but I didn’t.  The fact of the matter is, I know how the system works and I know that I can make sure he is not sorted wrong.  I am knowledgeable enough to play and manage the game as a parent.  But what about those parents who are not?  What about those families who are asked to “trust the system” even though the system is inherently broken?  Even though the system, the one that I helped to create, does not work for every student, and elevates 4 hours of my 10 year old son’s life into THE high stakes test of his academic career.

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10 Responses to The Only High Stakes Test

  1. Sue Densmore says:

    Tony –

    What a horrifying realization for you, and a sad post to read. I find myself feeling helpless, like a voice shouting in the wind, about all this misguided reliance on “data-driven” decision making. Data-informed might be OK, but you’d better make sure you’ve got the whole ball of wax to consider.

    I hope your son does well.


    • tbaldasaro says:

      Unfortunately, it wasn’t a realization as much as an affirmation that his test scores this year are what they are. I like your distinction between data driven and data informed, but I still worry about the over reliance on data. How do we measure that which we value without using the lowest common denominator… test scores?

  2. Tony,
    Not to the same degree but I have had the same struggle in my school. How do we know the students are learning? How do we know that a certain program be it in language or Math is working? For that you need data. How do you get this data? How do you make it that it is not subjective to each teacher?
    These are the questions that I grapple with and I am sure many others do. I know it doesn’t help your situation but I do feel your pain.
    I hope your son does well so that in the future he will be able to maximize his learning after all the focus needs to be student learning.

    • tbaldasaro says:


      Thanks for your comments and I agree that the focus needs to be on student learning. Perhaps it is our over reliance on programs that creates this demand for data. We spend so much money on the next program… the one that will solve all of our problems, that we need data shortly thereafter to validate our expense. What if we spend that money on PD? What if we taught teachers how to assess learning, develop authentic assessments, and personalize learning in a more meaningful way than just programs and tests?

  3. roblyons says:

    This is a great post because of the perspective with which you write it. In New Jersey our standardized test torture begins in 3rd grade with the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge – NJASK(why?) My son was subjected to 9 months of helpful test prep in order to slay this standardized beast. Since Back to School Night last year, I knew what we were up against. Daily homework included read and respond exercises modeled after NJASK questions. Up until 3rd grade my son truly loved reading. It was something that he did on his terms, and he was always given the freedom to choose what he read, when he read it, and for how long. Obviously this changed. After some controversy of preliminary reporting, and subsequent technical adjustments, we received his score. Brendan landed a whopping AVERAGE! Not superior, not below average.

    To me it just wasn’t worth taking away the one thing that my kid did well in school. Too often in today’s fast paced world, the only uninterrupted time we spend with our kids is in the evening helping them with homework. It’s a shame when that time is spent fighting with them to do something that you know is really meaningless. I suspect a case of spring flu may strike the Lyons household sometime around the first week of May….

    All the best

    Rob Lyons

    • tbaldasaro says:

      Hey Rob,
      You know, wouldn’t it be worth spending time with your kid problem solving, being creative, allow him to explore. I can’t blame kids for hating the work we are making them do because it is meaningless to them!
      Ben recently told me as I was putting him to bed that he hated writing in his journal at school. Now, he keeps a blog and has been interested in taking some online literacy courses. When I asked him why he said, “because it is all about the weekend, which we talk about during share (time), and only the teacher reads it. In my blog, I can write about what interests me and anyone in the world can read and comment.”

      It’s all about relevance.

  4. Page says:

    Hey Tony –
    I just read your blog and understand the struggle you are in. But test-taking conversation aside, I can say, that, in school, I was a terrible test taker. I got sorted into the lower (maybe lowest) math class and did not take Calculus in high school for that reason. I went to college and ended up with my B.S. in both Math and Physics (yes, in 4 years) and went on to teach math and physics. So, it may seem like a big deal now, like your son will be put in a path he cannot get out of, but it’s not true. There are always opportunities out there. I think the more we can do to stimulate our kids, help them discover their passions, and keep up their curiosity, then the better off they will be no matter what school and classes they are in.

    Good luck!

    • tbaldasaro says:

      Hi Page,

      I appreciate your comments, but I have to say that I am not concerned about Ben. I know the system, I can make it work, co-educate, fill in the gaps, etc. However, I do worry about those kids who don’t have parents who understand the system.

  5. Tony,

    Maybe ben’s teacher would listen to reason and let Ben blog instead of the writing journal? Maybe.

    I too have widened my perspectives so much in the last year concerning using data. I really like Sue’s phrase “data informed.” I will have to use that someday.


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