Wednesday, March 16, 2011

This Is Not a Test. This is Not Only a Test.

Several people have asked me to post something about the standardized testing movement.  While I appreciate the need for discrete topics, it is difficult to know where one ends and another begins.  The mounting corporate control of education, the slashing of teacher salaries and undermining of unions, the Orwellian language of accountability and choice and the call for merit pay all dovetail in the high stakes test; and yet,  as the site where all these disturbing trends converge, standardized tests ironically tend to pry related ideas apart in a manner that makes it difficult to bring them back together.  The myopic focus on testing fragments knowledge and atomizes individual teachers and learners until we are all trapped in solitary cells of information, unable to connect meaningfully to our thoughts, feelings, or to each other.

I have been intending to write something about standardization for the past couple days, but became distracted and depressed by the tragic events in Japan.  I can't get my mind off the devastation and terrifying radiation unleashed by the earthquake and tsunamis.  I feel strongly that we, along with the rest of the world, need to rethink our dependence on nuclear power.  There is a real potential for such an accident to occur here, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says that "we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan."  This, to me, is a staggering form of compartmentalization, i.e., gross stupidity, ever more likely to encumber our population as we churn out disconnected skills instead of engaged human beings who think and feel, whose hearts are not amputated from their minds.

As long as we drill, baby, drill our students to memorize information and adopt skills in isolation from their real world contexts and consequences, we cannot be surprised when those individuals fail to react to moral, spiritual, and material crises.  The CAHSEE exam must avoid "sensitive topics" such as religion, war, politics and poverty, to name just a few.  While we don't want to disadvantage any student by crafting test questions in a culturally biased way, our fixation on these tests as the true measure of learning is bound to infantilize our society to the point that we can't think about or discuss anything of consequence.  

How are we going to preserve our democracy unless we teach our kids to greet controversy with healthy dialogue?  How can we inspire students to seek knowledge and cultivate wisdom unless we embrace our role as intellectuals?  We are teaching and thinking in a political universe with real world consequences, not a testing arcade in which players rack up points.  As schools and teachers continue to be judged and ranked by their performance on tests, more and more educators will accept the devil's bargain of rewarding and/or punishing students based on solely on their high stakes test scores.  In short, we will be tempted to do to the students what we feel is being done to us.  If our teacher performance is going to be scrutinized on the basis of these arbitrary measures, then we want the students to "buy in" to the urgency of effort and results.  We can tell ourselves this is for their own good, but I suspect there is a selfishness at the core of all this behaviorist conditioning.  We will inflict even those values we reject on our students out of desperation, frustration, and misplaced resentment.  If we don't have the guts to rebel against the corporate sabotage of our profession, I fear we may wield a coercive power over our students in compensation.  

Let's not lend legitimacy to the tyranny of the test.  By incentivizing learning with grades, scores and competitive games, we are trivializing what is truly at stake when we choose to think or not to think: to be or not to be.  Isn't that the question?


  1. Of course we at MHS have talked this subject up one side and down the other many times, especially you and I, Simone, and now that you've created the thread I find it hard to say something we haven't already said. Still, I think it all bears repeating in a public forum, because most people outside the profession have no idea about the implications of this trend and its real and potential threat to our students.

    In the current testing environment, we are treating students like numbers instead of people, attempting to reduce each one to a numerical value, without accounting for the human factors in each student's life that affect not only performance, but also well-being, as if we are little more than a factory creating a product that can be qualified and standardized. We are being asked to reproduce assembly-line students who will all answer a question the same way, without attention to nuance, choice, human sensibilities, or cultural persuasion. Few have thought about what kind of a society these people will make, despite the efforts of Aldous Huxley and a few other gifted writers who saw the trend coming years ago. In doing this, we are instilling a foundational belief in our students that there is in fact a correct answer to every question. This problem is two-fold: it makes students believe in black and white to the extent where they cannot grapple with the grey -- an essential life skill -- and it encourages them to expect us to give them all the answers without any thinking on their part. After all, if there is a right answer and they need to know it, how else are they going to get it?
    When I began training to be a teacher and my professors began to speak about "school reform" I foolishly thought, "Yes -- we need to reform this insane practice of reducing everything to a single multiple choice answer!" When I realized that the "reform" movement was really an effort to go further down the dehumanizing and demoralizing path the system had been heading down for years, I felt I was in a strange alternate universe.

    It is amazing to me that people don't see how truly misguided and misplaced this kind of measurement is when applied to human beings. As with so many other things, we tend to look only at the surface and accept the band-aid approach. Of course, it seems only logical that the success of teachers and students can be measured to testing what students know, and it’s an easy out to simply apply that measurement and expect it to heal all the problems facing our schools. But we have seen over the past several years that it does more harm than good when it comes to real learning and growth. Our students may be starting to get the “right” answers on the test, but they know very little about how to grapple with the grey area – those bigger, more complex questions involved in living on this planet as a human being. In light of the Japan disaster and all the other tough questions facing our world today, I can’t even begin to think about the implications of unleashing a generation of people who have neither the skill nor the desire to do anything beyond look to someone else for the “right” answer.

  2. I remember quite clearly as a student at least one occasion when I randomly bubbled in answers during a standardized test so that I could then spend time silently reading at my desk. Bliss! Time spent independently enriching my mind through a book of my choice, reflecting my personal interests! The concept of narrowing down an otherwise rich curriculum in favor of "drill and kill", rather than encouraging reasoning, critical thinking and imagination in our students is so utterly ridiculous to me that I can't begin to comprehend how we have arrived at this sorry state. Research has repeatedly proven that the vast majority of these tests are LOW quality and in fact, a complete corruption of the curriculum and standards. I recommend which has some excellent video clips from a NJ symposium last year on the topic- facts versus rhetoric. If the purpose of schooling at this point is to prepare the majority of students for mindless, assembly-line jobs, than yes, more multiple choice tests are exactly what we need. My father had a favorite t-shirt with a picture of a man walking off a cliff into a lake filled with alligators. The caption read, "Life of a romantic." I suppose anyone who enters the education field with the idealistic idea that they are going to encourage young people to think for themselves, is in essence that man walking off the cliff in this educational climate... God love us! All we can do is continue to fight the good fight by speaking out, rising above it, staying true to our own beliefs and values, finding time, making time and continuing to give our best to the students. Unfortunately, there is only so much time in a day. To me, that means focusing on inquiry-based, collaborative projects that encourage them to question, question, question, to find their own answers and to apply them in a very real-world way that will benefit this planet that so needs their full participation. If that makes me a less effective educator according to test scores, but a more effective human being according to my own personal standards of excellence, I step off that cliff knowing that I made a difference (in spite of having been deemed "non-essential" as a librarian/media teacher by some...)

  3. Cathy, the question you ask, rhetorical or not, needs to be asked. What is the purpose of schooling? If one purpose is to protect and enliven our democracy, then we are straying far from that goal with test after stupefying test. If, by contrast, it is to "prepare the majority of students for mindless, assembly-line jobs," then the corporate hijackers of public education are getting exactly what they paid for.

  4. I am not a teacher and I do not work in education. I'm sorry, but the posts in this thread is not convincing. You teachers who feel this way need to come up with a clearer stated reason why testing is not good and mention a better alternative. From what I gather, the alternatives amount to "trust the teacher's opinion". There is a big problem in that alternative.

  5. Anonymous, I'm not against testing per se. I've been known to create my own tests and assessments as a teacher. I am against high stakes tests that are used to bludgeon both teachers and students into a "performance" that is not organic to the process of learning, and thus, not authentic. When schools, teachers and students are measured in such a lopsided manner, the scores they produce are often the result of a lopsided curriculum that neglects substantive critical thinking in favor of regurgitated facts and black and white analysis, the stuff that is simpler to measure.

    High stakes tests also create a competition that reduces learning to a game to be won or lost. Many states wanted to win this game at all costs, and consequently they distorted the results of their NCLB mandated tests. Our federal exam, the NAEP, does not reflect national improvement in mathematics and reading, in spite of almost 10 years of No Child Left Behind and the incessant state standardized testing it spawned. On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American schools with a less than 10% poverty rate scored better than countries with a comparable poverty rate. To the extent that US schools are "falling behind" as we often hear, it is the schools with high poverty rates that are bringing down the average. Poverty is something we must address as a nation, but it is less daunting to blame teachers. Those who push the toy boat around are called "reformers" even as they avoid rocking the yacht. Moreover, affluent districts come with more resources and privileges, and perhaps are able to transcend the "drill and kill" mentality that can overtake schools labeled "underperforming."
    Finland, a country with relatively low poverty, scores highest on PISA. Since Finland's success is lauded in the film "Waiting for Superman," and many eduformers point to Finland as a model of educational excellence, we might ask what they are doing right, assuming, of course, that their PISA ranking proves their superiority. Their low poverty rate is surely an important factor in their achievement, but it's arguably not the only one. Finnish students must be constantly taking tests and getting measured in order to do so well on this international exam, right? Wrong. They don't do standardized tests in Finland. They value and trust the unionized teachers to design meaningful instruction and assessments. That is what we should be doing as well. "Trusting the teacher's opinion" only sounds like a horrific alternative after years of propaganda meant to undermine America's trust in the teaching profession, and its faith in public education as a cornerstone of our democracy.

    I'm not arguing that ALL teachers are good or that we should have no method of evaluating teachers. In-class observations and administrator feedback yield far more reliable information than student test results. How you interact with your students on a continuing basis says more about you as a teacher than how well they do in any given year on a standardized test. The latter is a snapshot, not the culmination of all your instruction, and test results are overdetermined and can't be reduced to one cause, i.e., the teacher.

  6. Cont. from above

    You suggest that we come up with a better alternative to testing, and I submit the alternative is to train our teachers well, pay them decently, and let them do their jobs. Since the start of NCLB I would guess that we have more lazy teachers in the classroom than before, as the lazy-minded will be more easily seduced by scripted curricula. Many smart and passionate people will flee a profession that is outsourced to test prep companies which override the skills and wisdom of those humans on the ground. Even teachers who start out alert and reflective are prone to going through the testing motions, especially when their jobs security is at stake. Serious, intelligent educators should recoil at the notion that corporate giants, political appointees and pundits are somehow better qualified to educate our students than are we.

  7. Thank you, that was well thought out and informative.