Transparency in Teaching (Stuff) Podcast

Are we done with Standardized Testing, Yet?

What’s all this Stuff about State Testing? :  A Rant

Why do we send our children to school? To learn stuff?  What stuff? Who decides which “stuff” is important and which can be set aside? How do we know they learned this stuff? In the long past, education meant learning which plants wouldn’t kill you if you ate them, or the best way to plant a seed so that it would grow, or how to build a shelter that wouldn’t fall on your head as you slept, while, at the same time,  keeping the “big bad wolf” out. It was about survival, and passing knowledge from one generation to the next, was one way to guarantee this. This was early standardized testing. Passing it meant you stayed alive. Today, one may not physically die if a standardized test won’t cause death if it isn’t passed, but it is possible that your school might.

Today in class, I don’t have to teach my students basic survival skills (although some kindergarten teachers may argue that teaching kids not to eat paste may fall into that category). In my English class, I must make sure my middle school students know how to analyze a piece of literature for the author’s purpose, determine bias and reliability in nonfiction, and write an essay to justify their point of view about a topic. Did I decide that those are the important skills my students must have to succeed in the future? No, it wasn’t me.

Standardized Testing Abducted Education

To begin, what I must teach in my class is determined by the Common Core State Standards. Developed in 2009, these standards were in response to students’ failing reading and mathematical abilities compared to other nations. The No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) was President Bush’s answer to this problem. Soon after, President Obama’s Race to the Top program offered districts billions of dollars if they agreed to adopt certain education reforms based on testing. While both of these initiatives were developed out of a real concern for the education system, they did much to hinder and little to help. 

Behind Closed Doors

Above all, the goal was to have every single child in America proficient in their grade level standards by 2014. This was a goal that most teachers knew was next to impossible. Once again, a small group of people passed laws and decided on standards. As usual, these were people with mostly no significant time in a real classroom with real students. The professionals who know their clientele the best, the teachers, were, for the most part, left off the panel.

The Test is the Thing

Implementing standardized testing became the way to determine whether or not these standards were met. The consequences for a school failing to meet the goals were severe and opened up a Pandora’s Box of troubles. Education historian, Diane Ravitch, points to these two programs as a cause for the “exodus of experienced educators, who were replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage teachers; the closure of many public schools, especially in poor and minority districts…” as well as a myriad of other issues ranging from an expansion of for-profit charter schools to attacks on teachers’ unions.

Ok, so I get the idea behind the Common Core and standardized testing. I don’t necessarily disagree with its intent. It is important to look at how students are progressing. Data can help determine what to teach to fill in learning gaps. But using one test as a way to judge an entire school is simply ridiculous. There are too many variables that affect the outcome of the test. 

Out of My Control

Believing a set of standards taught nationwide would help guarantee an equal education is naive. The purpose was no matter where a child went to school, they would receive the same education. That is a nice thought, but it doesn’t consider that not all states spend educational dollars similarly. Or how much home environments can vary from place to place.

For example, I can control what information I present to the students. I can develop lessons to support the Common Core state standards. However, I cannot control student absences, or students whose families move often, or students who do not have parental support, have family issues, or arrive 3 to 4 years below grade level in their reading ability.

Certainly, I can provide extra help after school, but the student must show up. In addition, I can call home and set up student conferences, but I have no control if the phone number doesn’t work. Look, I’m not trying to make excuses, but all of these issues can affect how much a student learns. As a result, the effectiveness of a teacher or a school cannot be based on the outcome of one test.

A More Reasonable Approach?

 Here are what I think are some things to consider to make testing more useful:

  1. Stop using standardized tests as the sole way to determine the effectiveness of a school or a teacher. It is only one part to consider. Assess progress using a portfolio of work. This collection can include the student’s interpersonal skills,  ability to collaborate, use creativity to problem solve, and attempts made to incorporate more challenging materials without giving up. These abilities cannot be determined by a computer-scored test but are skills that greatly improve a person’s chances of success.
  2. Give the same standardized tests at the beginning and again at the end of the school year. This is a better way to see what progress has been made. The test my students took last year determines their baseline for progress this year. My students were with a different teacher at a different school. I have no control over how the teacher taught the year prior or how much students lost or gained over the summer.
  3. Score students on how much they improved as individuals rather than how the school did as a whole. We should instead measure the growth toward meeting a standard. Although some students may recover from learning gaps, it is unfair to expect students who might come 3 to 4 years below grade level to be at grade level by the end of a single school year. 
  4. Adapt standards to serve the population of a school. If most of my students are not at grade level, then it makes no sense for me to teach 7th-grade standards when they have not yet mastered the standards that came before. It is no wonder that students begin to think of themselves as failures and want to quit when asked to build upon concepts they haven’t yet mastered.  If you build a house with a partial foundation, the floors built on top will eventually fail, too.
  5. The first years of education are the most crucial. The student should not move on unless they’ve reached mastery in the primary grades. . Students must have the skills of reading and number literacy, or we are setting the student up for failure. There must be a limit to social promotion. 
  6. Stop blaming poor standardized testing performance on educators. Yes, the profession needs to remove some teachers. Yes, unions and tenure can impede removing those unworthy of the job. However, blaming teachers for students’ poor performance on the state test is like blaming the doctor for a patient not losing weight. The doctor gives the information and the plan. The patient can ask questions, but ultimately, it is up to the patient to do the work. 
  7. Spend the billions of dollars each year on state testing and all that goes with it to help decrease poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity. These issues significantly affect the ability of students to do well in school.

Keep it in the Neighborhood

Ultimately, we all need to take responsibility for the education of our children. A group of disconnected bureaucrats should not be the ones to decide what kids need to know. While a set of national standards can be a guide, the local community should determine how to best implement them. Business owners, parents, teachers, school×296-1.jpegistrators, and the school board should discuss what “stuff” our children really should be learning. They should discuss how the standards fit those expectations and what to do if students fail to meet them. 

In the end, the stuff that makes a student successful today is not based on knowing how to grow their own food or build their own houses.  The stuff today’s students need is how to grow their own intelligence and build a strong foundation of learning. These skills are what the success of everything else in their world stands upon. I suppose it’s possible there is a place for standardized testing somewhere in that stuff.

Well, that’s just my opinion, anyway…

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