This is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.
We need exactly ZERO standardized tests in our public schools.
I know that sounds extreme. We’ve been testing our children like it was the only thing of academic value for more than a decade. When the question finally arises – how many tests do we need? – it can sound radical to say “none.”
But that’s the right answer.
And finally Congress is asking the right question.
The U.S. Senate is holding hearings to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the federal law that governs K-12 schools. One of the biggest issues at stake is exactly this – how many standardized tests should we give students?
Sen. Lamar Alexander – head of the Senate Education Committee – is asking the public to email testimony to FixingNCLB@help.senate.gov. Parents, teachers and concerned citizens are writing in with their concerns about testing.
But will they have the courage to tell the whole truth in this – our moment of truth?
We’ve fought so long just to get someone to recognize there is a problem. Will we be able to honestly assess the solution?
We’re like a lifetime smoker who’s been diagnosed with lung cancer being asked how many packs he needs.
Or an alcoholic waking in a puddle of vomit being asked how many drinks he needs.
Or a junkie after a near-death overdose being asked how many crack pipes he needs.
We all know the right answer in those situations – and it’s the same for us about standardized testing.
We need None. Nada. Negatory.
But our hands shake. We get cold sweats. Withdrawal sets in.
Will we face our national addiction? Or again double down in denial?
Remember there is no positive benefit for forcing our children to go through this mess. It is not for them that we mandate these policies. It is for us – so that we can pretend we have control over something that is uncontrollable.
Learning is not something measurable in the same way as water being poured into a glass. It defies the precision of our instruments.
Don’t think so? Then answer me this: which unit of measurement should we use to determine how much learning has been accomplished? Pounds? Grams? Liters? Hectares?
Billy got hisself 20 pounds of book learnin‘ at the school today?
We use grades like A, B, C – but there’s nothing precise about them. They’re just a percentage of assignments completed to the teacher’s satisfaction.
I don’t mean to say that you can’t tell if learning has taken place. But how much? That’s difficult to gauge – especially as the complexity of the skill in question increases.
You can tell if your dog knows how to sit by commanding it to sit and observing what it does. It’s a much different matter to ask someone to evaluate the themes of a novel and determine how much literary analysis that person understands based on his answer.
Of course teachers do it every day, but that determination is, itself, subjective. You’re required to trust the judgment of the educator. You have to believe the instructor knows what she’s talking about.
That’s the best you can get in the humanities – and teaching is a humanity – more an art than a science.
Perhaps some day neuroscientists will allow us to determine the relationship between firing synapses and brain events to internal states like learning. At such time, perhaps the very act of comprehension will be closer to loading a program onto your hard drive. But until that day, education is a social science.
The push for increased standardized testing, however, is an attempt to hide this fact. And the results are less – not more – valid than a teacher’s classroom grades.
Most people don’t know how you score a standardized test. If they did, they wouldn’t automatically trust the results.
Fact: standardized tests are graded by temporary workers – many of whom have no education background – determining at will what counts as passing and failing in any given year. In fact, they have an incentive to fail as many people as possible to increase the market for their employer’s test prep material.
That is NOT objective. In fact, it is LESS objective than the grade provided by the classroom teacher. After all, what is the educator’s incentive to pass or fail a student other than successful completion of the work?
In fact, statistics back this up. Taken as a whole, standardized test scores do NOT demonstrate mastery of skills. They show a students’ parental income. In general, poor kids score badly and rich kids score well.
Moreover, the high stakes nature of testing distorts the curriculum students receive. Instead of a well-rounded course of study focusing on higher order thinking skills, high stakes testing narrows what is taught to that which can most easily be tested. This creates a market for the test prep materials that are often created and distributed by the same corporations who create, distribute and grade the standardized tests. It’s a conflict of interests, a feedback loop, a Ponzi scheme – in short, fraud perpetrated on the public as if it were education reform.
Honestly, we know all this at heart. Every teacher, politician, statistician, and student. But as a society, instead of devising a better method, we continually reach for the same failing solutions.
Likewise calls to reduce testing without ending it are just cries from the junkie for another fix.
Yes, grade span testing (three exams spaced out over elementary, middle and high school) is better than annual testing (once in each grade from 3-8th and once in high school). So is a single graduation test. But why do it at all?
The burden of proof is on those defending tests. If these assessments really are as toxic as we’ve shown, why would less of them be more beneficial than none?
I see no reason to suppose that even limited testing would avoid these criticisms. Grade span testing would still be appraised with cut scores, still assess socioeconomics – not academics, still deform the curriculum… Why keep it – even in smaller quantities?
But what’s the alternative, naysayers will complain. If we don’t standardize test our children to death, what do we do?
Answer: focus on the problem – poverty.
More than half of all US public school students live below the poverty line. These children have increased needs for tutoring, counseling, nutrition, and wraparound services. Moreover, these are exactly the children who go to the most underfunded schools. They have the largest class sizes and the smallest offerings of arts, music, foreign languages and extra-curricular activities. The equipment and often buildings which serve these kids are overwhelmingly out-of-date and in need of repair, remodeling or replacement.
If you really wanted to improve the US education system, you’d address this glaring problem.
Equally, you need to elevate the profession of teaching, not denigrate it. Return the creation and execution of education policy to the experts – educators. Provide them with the resources they need to get the job done. Equip them with professional development that helps instruction, not testing. Help them individualize students’ educational experience, not standardize it. And offer racial sensitivity training to maximize cultural understanding between teachers and students.
How would we tell if any of this worked?
Easy. First, stop pretending that our current system of accountability works. It’s a sham.
Despite a media narrative of failing schools, comparisons with international education systems put American students at the very top – not the bottom – if you take poverty into account. Of course, no one wants to do that because we’d have to admit these comparisons are based on – you guessed it – standardized test scores, which AGAIN show economic disparity not intellectual achievement!
So we deify testing as the only thing that can hold schools accountable, then ignore data that disproves our findings and pretend like we have some hard-nosed system that keeps educators responsible. It doesn’t. It’s just a story like The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood or Climate Change Denial.
So how do we start to actually tell if our education system works? Easy. Trust our nations parents, students and teachers to tell us. And actually listen to what they say!
Now is the time.
Speak or forever hold your peace.
Whether our policymakers will even listen to us is a separate question. If WE’REstrung out on testing, they’re at least as dependent on the lobbying dollars of the assessment industry.
But we have to try.
Our collective hands may shake. A quaver may creep into our voices. We may get hot and cold sweats.