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ASU expert decries high-stakes testing of students

ASU expert sees split between policymakers, parents on high-stakes testing.
November 3, 2015

Professor sees split between politicians, parents

The debate over high-stakes testing for students was highlighted last month when President Barack Obama said that schools should have fewer, but better quality exams.

In Arizona, starting this year, students are no longer required to pass a standardized test to graduate from high school. But the state’s public schools still are required to test third-graders to prove reading proficiency, and a portion of teachers’ evaluations are tied to test results.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley (pictured above), an expert on testing and an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, weighs in on the current debate about the effectiveness of testing students. She writes a blog about educational policy and testing called VAMboozled!

Question: Do you believe that students are being tested too much? Or is the amount of testing appropriate, but the emphasis — “high stakes” — out of whack?

Answer: I definitely believe students are being tested too much, especially given that students across the nation spend over four solid days on tests alone. These estimates do not include the time it takes to prepare for tests, taking away from valuable instruction time. In addition, “high-stakes” testing is not a good way to measure the quality of education in our schools. Research over the past 30 years shows that attaching test scores to academic progress never works, even though conceptually doing so makes sense. A good rule of thumb is that the farther the test gets away from the classroom-level (such as tests designed by entire statewide systems), the less useful the test becomes for its intended/informative purposes.

Q: What level of testing do you believe is appropriate for younger students? For high schoolers?

A: I do not believe large-scale standardized tests are appropriate for young children. There are many methodological issues that come into play when testing young children related to their ages and levels of maturity, the complexities that come along with defining and measuring young children’s development, learning and academic productivity, and other ethical concerns. As for high school students, research indicates it is OK to test these students. However, the most effective tests are developed near the school level instead of on a larger scale. These are the tests that are the most closely aligned with what has been taught and are capable of yielding data and information that is actionable. Large-scale standardized tests yield little to no timely or actionable data, especially at the high school level given most tests are not developed to measure specialized subject areas.

Q: Testing has increased as taxpayers have demanded more accountability — requiring teacher pay to be tied to test scores, for example. And requiring a third-grade test to determine reading proficiency or the student is held back. If testing is cut back, how will schools provide accountability to taxpayers?

A: Despite policymakers' increased focus on accountability, few taxpayers demand it. National survey data shows that the average taxpayer does not demand “more accountability.” Politicians and policymakers are largely the ones demanding accountability. In fact, there is a widening disparity between policymakers and taxpayers. The growth of the “opt-out” movement, where parents of hundreds of thousands of public school students choose to not take high-stakes standardized testing, highlights this disparity. While parents are concerned with frequent testing, policymakers responded with serious consequences and penalties to force parents and students to take these tests. The question to me is: How will the federal and state governments ensure that the accountability measures and models they put into place, to hold schools accountable to the taxpayers and for which taxpayers also pay millions, are actually working?

Q: The National Assessment of Education Progress scores were recently released. These are often considered to be among the “gold standard” of standardized test scores because of the rigorous and consistent testing methods used. Yet budget reductions have reduced the scope of these tests. Do you think these large-scale, nationwide tests are important? Do you think it’s important, or even relevant, to compare states to each other?

A: Testing experts across the nation respect the NAEP and admire it for its ability to monitor states’ educational programs. The NAEP is also respected because “high-stakes” have not been attached to the test and have not distorted the results. I also think it is important to compare states to one another. However, we do know a lot about these states without such tests and all tests in general, when we know other correlated factors (such as states’ political demographics, teacher-student ratios, average class size, teacher salaries, per-pupil funding). For anyone who thinks that any test-based measure is picking up or assessing only “student learning,” they are seriously wrong as test scores are so highly correlated with these and other variables. While this is unfortunate, it is true.

Q: Is there any research proving any negative effects of testing on students? Does it address the quantity or quality of the tests?

A: There is a lot of research on the negative effects of testing on students. In fact, it’s more worrisome that our nation continues to perpetuate such test-based accountability approaches to educational reform. Tests, while still extremely expensive, are still the cheapest educational reform measure to adopt and implement.

Q: Is testing actually a better reflection on a student’s socioeconomic status than their subject proficiency?

A: Unfortunately, this is also true. With a handful of variables about any student population, we can predict with about 80 percent accuracy what students’ test scores would be without students actually taking the tests.

Q: Some states, such as New York, require end-of-course tests for high school graduation. What are your thoughts on those tests? How about SATs/ACTs? Some universities are moving away from requiring them. Is that a good idea?

A: End-of-course tests are OK because they are more instructionally sensitive and better assess a student’s learning outcomes. However, if we add end-of-course tests, other tests need to give way. In addition, the SAT and the ACT do not predict student success in college as well as most people think. Common stats indicate that approximately 50 percent of the students who perform well on either test will perform well in college and the other 50 percent will not. I think that universities should get rid of the current college entrance exams and replace them with more quality (albeit likely less efficient) indicators for making college entrance decisions.

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Visions of 'Wonderland'

Peer into the rabbit hole with these many visions of "Wonderland."
ASU home to the many interpretations of Alice and her "Wonderland."
November 3, 2015

Special collections, symposium at ASU celebrate 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story

“And what is the use of a book,” asked Lewis Carroll’s Alice, moments before tumbling down the rabbit hole, “without pictures or conversations?”
— from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Since its publication in 1865, more than 300 artists have created their own versions of the images and words in Alice’s eponymous adventure.

Many of those interpretations — including visions by painter Salvador Dali, printmaker Barry Moser, costume designer Irene Corey, Broadway composer Charles Strouse, pop-up book maker Robert Sabuda and the story’s original illustrator, John Tenniel — comprise Arizona State University Libraries’ assemblage of dozens of eclectic materials related to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass.”

The collection will be on display at the 10th annual Emeritus College Symposium on Nov. 7 in ASU’s Old Main building, which will celebrate the sesquicentennial of “Alice in Wonderland” by featuring a range of experts presenting on the breadth of Carroll’s influence. The event is open to the public.

Speakers include faculty associate Lou-ellen Finter’s photography of the American Southwest “through the Looking Glass”; astronomy and physics professor emeritus Per Aannestad on the connection between black holes and the Cheshire Cat’s grin; ASU Foundation CEO Rick Shangraw on “The Wonderland of ASU”; professor of supply chain management Craig Kirkwood on the digitization of the Alice books; and English professors emeriti Alleen Nilsen and Don Nilsen, who are compiling lists of the ways “Alice in Wonderland” was a zeitgeist in the 1960s and 1970s and continues to persist in popular culture.

Womand and man looking at book of art.

Hayden Library's Katherine Krzys and ASU professor Dan Bivona
look at Salvador Dali's vision of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures
in Wonderland" and its sequel "Through the Looking-Glass."

Charlie Leight/ASU News

“These books are so rich they offer so many opportunities for generating a wide variety of meanings,” said associate professor of EnglishThe Department of English at ASU is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Dan Bivona, who taught Carroll’s books in his classes and is researching Alice’s relationship to Wonderland’s creatures in connection with the Turing test, which determines a machine’s ability to exhibit human behavior.

The mutability of the Alice stories is in part because of Carroll’s sparse text, which allows for creative interpretation. “If you don’t know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture,” he wrote in chapter nine, relying on the book’s illustrations to fill gaps in its text.

Each redesign has an effect on how the work is received, said art professor emeritus John RisseeuwJohn Risseeuw is printmaking faculty emeritus in the School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts..

Risseeuw spent 35 years teaching ASU students printmaking and the history of the book. He showed his classes the library’s different editions of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to demonstrate varying approaches to illustrating the text or creating images to complement it.

An example he used was Carroll’s “Mouse’s Tale,” one of the first instances of concrete poetry, in which the visual nature of the text represents the concept that is written within — in this case, a long tale told by a mouse and printed in a winding, tail-like pattern. “The interesting thing is that in every edition of ‘Alice’ this has to be done by the typesetter, and it’s always done differently,” Risseeuw said.

books with odd text patterns

Two versions of "Alice in Wonderland’s" long tale include a 1907 edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham and Barry Moser’s 1982 interpretation.

Nearly every edition of Alice in Wonderland — including many theatrical scripts — contains the tail tale.

Another commonality in many of the publications is their pictures’ resemblance to Tenniel’s originals.

“Tenniel is so good,” said Don Nilsen. “He did it so well. He captured the tone, and it was a very effective tone.”

Tenniel, the principal artist at the British weekly satire magazine Punch, spent more than a year perfecting his drawings for the book. His subtle inclusion of political allusions is often cited as a reason for Alice’s instant and enduring popularity among adult readers. 

“What Tenniel did, in one way, is to make it so that people can never think about, say, the Mad Hatter, without imagining this guy without that big top hat,” Risseeuw said. “Whereas if you read the text without seeing that, your imagination makes up an image for the Mad Hatter. … So an illustrator actually takes something away from the reader — prevents their imagination from taking the story where they would imagine it and expand upon it, perhaps.”

Katherine Krzys, curator of the Child Drama Collection and archivist at ASU, recurrently found copies of Tenniel’s illustrations alongside directors’ designs for dramaturgical productions. “I was surprised at how much carryover there was between the different versions,” she said. “There’s a lot of Tenniel, but different interpretations of it.”

According to Risseeuw, part of the challenge for visual artists commissioned to portray Alice in a new way is to “put their own thing into it.” He points to Dali’s suggestive, semi-abstract visuals as a departure from the more traditionally definitive illustrations of Arthur Rackham, Peter Newell, Moser and others.

A Punch illustrationIllustration of wild characters published shortly after Carroll’s death proposes that those attempts fall short. The image, titled “Tenniel’s ‘Alice’ Reigns Supreme,” depicts newer versions of the White Rabbit and Alice paying homage to the original.

Undeterred, new copies are continuously issued, and a handful of 150th anniversary editions are being released this year.

“It’s all comparative,” Risseeuw said. “It isn’t that there’s one that stands out or that is better than the others. They’re all good by comparison to each other. They enrich each other.”

Registration to attend ASU in Wonderland: The Tenth Annual Emeritus College Symposium, is available at The program runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 7, and will be followed with a free Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. in Old Main’s Carson Ballroom. Both events are open to the public.

ASU’s special collections, including its editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, can be viewed in the Luhrs Reading Room during the school year from 9 to 6 p.m. on weekdays and by appointment on Saturdays. The reading room is located on the fourth floor of the Hayden Library, and a staff member is always available to help locate materials. ASU Libraries invites classroom visits and scholarly research. To learn more, contact 480-965-4932. Aspects of the exhibit can also be viewed here.