Before you read any farther, here’s a warning: it might be better if you didn’t read this post. What I am saying here and (intend to go on saying) is subversive. It is a challenge to an established absolute in education. It is dangerous. However, it has become impossible for me to believe anything different. I can not remain silent; to do so would be immoral for me.
Fifteen years into my career, perhaps it is no longer necessary to think of myself as a “young” teacher. I have taught in schools in three states. Rural and urban. Rich and poor. Mostly “language learners”; mostly “free/reduced lunch”; mostly “doing fine, thanks”. All those schools have some things in common. As far as I can tell, all schools have some things in common. To my increasing dismay, the one absolute that is common to every public school everywhere is standardized testing.
Others much more qualified than me have written on the history of standardized testing in the United States. It is such a hot topic that it makes the news outside educational circles. Today a wide ranging debate on the place and form of standardized tests is raging. From my perspective, we aren’t nearly frightened or angry enough.
Although we do our best to deny it – or even to make it untrue – the purpose of school has become to help students get more test questions right. All schools write “continuous improvement plans”. The bottom line of all such plans: help more kids get more test questions right. There is a hefty list of mandated initiatives/programs/policies that are designed to provide “student academic supports” in dozens of different ways. What they all have in common: helping students do better on standardized tests. Listen carefully the next time you hear someone talk about education at any level. At some point that person will mention needing to “improve” or brag about having “improved” or plans to ensure that schools/students “improve”. What we always mean by “improvement” is more students getting more test questions right. When we say a school or a system is “failing” or “struggling” or is a “priority” or “in school improvement”, we mean there aren’t enough students getting enough test questions right.
It is very important to recognize that it is entirely possible to improve test scores without improving learning. Is is conversely possible to have low test scores that are misleading about the amount of learning (and even achievement) going on in a school. A student who does very well on a standardized test has probably learned at high levels; a student who does very poorly on a standardized test has probably not learned as much as s/he should have. The fact is that we can not rely on either assumption to be absolutely correct. But we do. We should have an obsessive drive for more learning in all schools. What we have instead is a relentless pursuit of better test scores.
There was a point at which Public Education had to choose between pursuing more learning and higher test scores. We chose higher test scores. We specifically (and often literally) seek to help students pass tests even if they do not learn in the process. Passing the test is the objective, not learning so much that the test score takes care of itself. We staff our schools and structure our days and plan our years around the sacred and almighty Standardized Test. We set aside all other teaching and learning for weeks at a time to prepare for the test. We contort the entire campus into ridiculous configurations to create the required “testing environment”. We publish school (and in some states teacher) test results and then base funding and staffing and salary and sanctions and structuring on those results. There is a growing mandate that teacher’s annual evaluations include their own students’ “achievement” (read standardized test results) as a major component. In some states those conditions already exist. On the other hand, we wring our hands (but take no urgent action) when we see no evidence that students are proficient users of technology or effective problem-solvers or accomplished collaborators or highly innovative. It is permissible for those attributes and skills to be missing because they are not measured on the test. We know that standardized tests tell only part of the story (when they are accurate at all) yet we make improving students’ performance on them our Prime Directive.
If there was a clear and consistent correlation between test results and learning, this culture would not be as significant a concern for me. However, the very notion of basing our entire judgement of a student’s (or a school’s) academic proficiency on one test – which includes two hundred multiple choice questions at the most – is simply ludicrous. This practice is made even more disheartening in light of concerns some (such as Walter Stroup, education profession at the University of Texas at Austin) have raised over whether standardized tests even do what they are supposed to do – measure student learning. Others (such as Todd Farley, author of Making the Grades) have even suggested that the entire standardized testing industry is little more than a sham; that practices in the industry call the validity of any test results into question. If these folks are right – if standardized tests are measuring how well students take standardized tests more than how much math they know; if it is not safe to assume that the tests even do what they are designed to do – that raises serious questions for me. Questions like “why are we even administering standardized tests, let alone putting so much stock in them?”
The most shameful part of the culture of testing undeniably gripping Public Education is the fact that the students who require the most help are almost always hurt by it. Consider our very common practices. For a poor student, education is almost certainly the best (or only) way out of poverty. Learning how to answer test questions correctly is a skill that has almost no application in the “real world”. Yet poor and under-prepared students are the most likely to be part of “remedial” and “test review” classes in school. These same students are the least likely to be taught how to think critically, to express themselves cogently, to gain a deep understanding of the ideas that support the facts they are memorizing. But in the name of “improvement”, we pound them with low-interest, low-relevance, low-yield activities. They usually score a little bit better on the tests. But the cost is their opportunity to learn skills and the disciplines of mind that will have any value whatsoever in their future.
While this mindset permeates our entire educational system, comparing schools on extreme ends helps make the point. Schools that serve primarily middle-class and wealthy students teach them to think deeply. They have rich learning experiences; they make things; they collaborate; they are the standard-bearers for public education. When the time for standardized tests comes, these students attend extra-curricular classes (or hire tutors) that train them to perform well on the tests by thinking in a completely different way. The students learn an entirely separate skill set that they use to ace the tests. While lots of the knowledge learned in school helps them perform well on the tests, doing well on the test requires a different way of thinking. They learn that skill, ace the test, and then return to the meaningful learning they had been taught and that will serve them well the rest of their lives. Schools that serve mostly poor students are very different. I should know because I spent my entire teaching career in them. Students who attend these schools can not afford tutors. They can not stay after school because they have little brothers and sisters to take care of at home and/or jobs to go to. They don’t have the means of learning two ways to think. They still have to take the standardized tests. Their schools are labeled “failing” when they do not do well. So their teachers spend most of the year teaching them factoids and test-taking strategies. The really brave and radical ones teach lessons in critical thinking and otherwise try to defy all the mandates to improve scores. Teaching students to learn (instead of teaching them to answer questions correctly) is often an act of defiance.
These scenarios are not hyperbole or theoretical. I was one such teacher. When I was employed in a school system that had a writing sample as a graduation requirement, I taught a class of Seniors who had not yet passed. Most of my students could not speak English. But I taught them the formulaic strategies they could use to produce a passing score. I loved those students and wanted them to graduate; they loved me because most of them passed the writing sample. I still wonder if they learned anything meaningful about writing or communication or English during that year with me. And I hate the system that required us to play school. And still does for millions of students across the country.
Public Education is addicted to standardized testing. As is the case with most addictions, use in moderation would be fine – probably even healthy. I begin to believe however that we can not break our addiction by simply resolving to “do better”. It might be that the only way to save ourselves is to quit cold turkey. I have had this conversation with dozens of people. Not one person among them believes we can make standardized testing go away. Failing that, I have three simple (and extremely difficult) proposals.
- Stop caring about test results. Choose as a school to become obsessed with more learning. Focus all your energy on making sure students learn more every day. Dare to gamble that more learning will result in high test results anyway. If they don’t, have honest conversations about what the problem is – not enough learning or not enough right test questions. Then make thoughtful decisions. Our school has. It’s working.
- Find another way. I have no problem with accountability. Each school’s community should hold it accountable to produce very high levels of learning for all students. But in a world where the collected whole of human knowledge is available at our fingertips every minute of every day, standardized tests are no longer reliable nor sufficient proof of that learning. Many schools and educators are working on alternative systems of evaluating student learning. Join the effort. For this to be a reasonable transformation, we must replace standardized testing with highly accurate, highly descriptive systems that fill the void left and overcome the shortcomings we see now.
- Speak up. While our continued reliance on standardized testing now has the force of status quo, the number of individuals perpetuating that condition is many hundreds times smaller than the number of individuals who object to it. The problem is that the largest block of individuals (by far) is silent. I believe it is simply irresponsible to remain quiet any longer. For me, it would be immoral to do so.
Parents, raise your voice and demand that your child’s learning be the highest priority of his/her school. Ask questions about the evidence of learning that the school offers – whether that evidence be test scores, a portfolio of work, or any other form. Here is a dirty little secret: high test scores guarantee your child nothing. If you let us get away with teaching your child to ace the test instead of producing mastery level learning, s/he will be the one to pay the price for that charade.
Teachers, start talking about your practice and your school/system/state policies. Do they reveal a focus on learning or a focus on a better report card? I have resolved in my own mind to refuse to participate any longer in any farce about student learning – even if it costs me my job. I can not sleep at night if I accept a salary in exchange for actions that I know will hurt a child’s future. Be courageous.
Administrators, change the culture in your school. With or without permission. Protect your teachers when they are teaching at extremely high levels but not complying exactly with a bureaucratic checklist. Consider which is more important, complying with rules designed to ensure great achievement or actually achieving greatness.
Policy-makers, please listen to us. We are not asking to do less work. We are not asking for easier jobs. We are not asking for more time. We are asking you to let us take actions that will in fact accomplish the goals you say we are aiming for. If you refuse to listen, two outcomes seem very likely to me: many of us will be driven out of the profession entirely and public education will become irrelevant.
For the sake of all our futures, do your part to end this addiction now. It will be painful, but we can do it. Here’s how we should start:
“Hi. My name is Public Education and I’m an addict”