Hidden Success in New York City and the problems of standardised testing

Published on: Author: Mark Murphy Leave a comment

Post by Hannah R. Chestnutt. While visiting a New York School in a disadvantaged neighbourhood a few weeks ago, I came across a small boy in the school hallway fighting back tears. I had just met with a motivated team of teachers from the school involved in the Learning Partners Program who commit time to collaborating with other schools to generate new approaches to best meet the needs of their students. These teachers are learners who bravely enter into one another’s classrooms, take time to research and study new approaches, and share ways to best meet the social, emotional and academic needs of the children they serve. But why was one of their students so distressed? I knew that in a school context there could have been any number of reasons for this boy’s distress. It quickly became apparent why this boy did not want to return to his classroom. He was being asked to complete a sixth day of standardised testing.

Standardised testing

Standardised testing is a controversial issue in the United States for a number of reasons including the increased focus on a narrow range of subject areas and activities. Such tests restrict curiosity and creativity (Sahlberg 2010) and increase inequalities (Boaler 2003; Au 2009). What stood out to me in this situation in New York was the possibility that the gains these teachers are making through their participation in inter-school partnership work may not be immediately evident in short term quantifiable measures. Diane Ravitch’s recent blog post queries funding in low-income districts, “What if their test scores didn’t go up, but the schools were doing a better job of meeting their immediate needs as human beings?” The benefits to students as a result of teachers receiving support and time to build relationships with colleagues, parents and other community members may not always be measurable by standardised tests.

Funding for collaboration versus funding for standardised testing

A further disadvantage is the struggle for schools to retain sufficient funding to sustain school collaboration initiatives while “standardized testing is a growing industry globally” (Sahlberg 2015).  There is hope in the growing research base in support of school-to-school collaboration (e.g. Ainscow et al. 2016; Cochran-Smith 2015; Chapman et al. 2015; Fullan 2013; Ainscow et al. 2012; Chapman and Hadfield 2010), but just as hopeful are the proposals for new accountability measures (Darling-Hammond et al. 2016) and intelligent accountability measures (ASCL 2003; Hopkins 2007; Sahlberg 2007, 2010).

New and intelligent accountability measures

These accountability measures include broad sets of indicators, for example sample-based assessments, social-emotional learning indicators and student, parent and community engagement indicators. Until these new and intelligent accountability measures replace the current measures used in schools, the successes of schools in disadvantaged areas participating in collaborative partnerships will continue to be hidden. In addition to unveiling true successes in schools, new and more intelligent approaches may also result in less anxiety and stress on students such as the little boy in this New York City school.


Hannah R. Chestnutt is a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant at the University of Glasgow’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change. Previously she was a teacher for 11 years.  She taught in Canada, then in the United States and most recently in Scotland. Her experiences of teaching children and young people from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds led to her interest in educational inequity. Hannah’s PhD thesis explores the relationship between the tackling of educational inequity and networks of educational professionals involved in school partnerships.  Her research interests also include collaboration between practitioners, policy-makers and researchers; social network analysis; mathematics education; and teacher professional development.


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