Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Shadow of Testing--or, How We're Poisoning Public Education

While I get ready for finals week at OSU the rest of my family is in the midst of a different kind of testing. Mandated state testing of public school students.

It's a grim time of year--a time when the anticipation of testing ramps up my son's anxiety, a time when my wife risks losing her teaching license if she should make the mistake of comforting a weeping student overcome by a barrage of questions that, because of a learning disability, he can't answer.

My son, who's in the fourth grade, is in his second year of it. My wife, who has a Master's Degree in  Special Education, has been dealing with it every year since she started teaching special ed in the public schools. My daughter, in the first grade, doesn't start taking tests for a few more years--but her curriculum is already being changed to accommodate the demands of state testing.

This last concern may be the most serious of all. If the problems with testing could be sequestered to a couple of weeks in late spring, that would be one thing. But the testing mania that has overtaken American public schools casts a very long shadow, one that darkens the lives of all public school students. 

The mandated public school testing that we're talking about here is built on the premise that teachers are not to be trusted as professionals who know what they're doing--and that local schools and communities are not to be trusted with such assessment either. Schools and teachers have to be held accountable at a government level, with serious consequences if they don't measure up. And how do we hold them accountable? We test their students.

With funding and jobs on the line, public schools cannot afford to do otherwise than focus their energies on improving those test scores. And to make sure they are making the right sort of progress, they conduct all sorts of tests along the way. My son is tested and tested and tested again to make sure he is on his way to doing well on the tests that test whether his teachers get the resources they need to test him again next year.

The result? Well, Nancy Carlsson-Paige (a specialist in early childhood education at Lesley University) expressed it beautifully in a recent interview:

“As a professor of education, an educator of teachers, and someone who creates curriculum,” Carlsson-Paige said, “I see the harm education reform is causing children—the disappearance of play, creativity, and the arts from our schools. Evaluation is now driving curriculum, and curriculum is being reduced to something mechanistic. This isn’t real learning. Children are learning information by rote in the early years that cannot give them the solid foundation of knowledge they need to build on, as school continues. And the ‘drill and kill’ methods turn kids off from school early on and keep them from discovering the joy in learning. And this is mostly about poor children, because more well-to-do communities are able to provide all kinds of compensatory learning activities, such as trips to the museums, theater and music programs, summer camps.
 “We’re losing out on the opportunity to have a well-educated citizenry,” she said. “True citizens need to be able to not take things at face value, to think critically, to question authority. Tests don’t measure critical thinking or imagination. They reduce the whole learning process to lower level kinds of information that can be tested. It’s really sad and scary to see this happening.”

For those who think this is hyperbole, I encourage you to talk to teachers and to engaged parents of school-age children. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, a liberal or conservative one. It's a community issue about the future of our children. Those who are suspicious of big government, who think that local autonomy is generally to be preferred, can stand hand-in-hand on this issue with those who believe in public education and want it to be the best that it can be.

We need to return to a model in which local districts, schools, and teachers are trusted as professionals who care about our kids and their education. If a school is chronically underperforming, we should do something about that. But the problem cannot be diagnosed by a regimen of testing, because there are too many untestable variables that could lie at the root of the problem.

Here's how I'd put it: The long shadow cast by testing means a dramatic reduction in all those things that aren't testable but are crucial to a well-rounded education: creativity, critical reflection, the joy of discovery, the curiosity to muck around with the physical world to see what happens.

Testing's shadow means that teachers aren't as free to respond to the individual needs and interests and learning styles of their students--unless, of course, it so happens that the response is a tried and true method of improving scores on the stuff that can be tested and that the powers-that-be have decided to test.

There are kids out there with learning disabilities that make it awfully difficult for them to display the kind of successes that standardized testing measures--but who are nevertheless gifted in a range of ways and who could, in a creative learning environment, develop the skills and self-confidence to build on unique strengths and prepare themselves for a rich and successful life (albeit one that isn't defined by high scores on math and reading tests). Unfortunately, if the creative learning environment doesn't do the most to increase test scores, what's best for these students has to be sacrificed--not because the teachers don't care about these kids, but because they won't be able to help these kids at all if they experience the punitive response that poor test scores promise.

Let me put it another way: You know all those cliched movies about the inspirational teacher who finds a new way to connect with troubled kids, makes them excited about thinking and learning, and inspires them to change their lives for the better? Our testing regimen pretty much guarantees that the heroes of these feel-good movies will get fired.

We've seen where this testing mania is taking us. There's time to reverse it before more serious damage is done, while it's still an unfortunate experiment with some bad outcomes and hasn't yet become a generational tragedy. 

I encourage readers to make noise about this. I ask you as a father on behalf of two kids who are right now experiencing obsessive testing's chilling shadow.


  1. Good post Eric. High stakes testing has compromised what we value in education - relationships, caring, having fun together, character development, and lest we forget - learning. I have seen kids corrupted by this whole process and have come to hate learning.

    We have lost our ability to trust one another as a society. And now we are infecting our children with the same mistrust. It is sad.

  2. Thanks for this Eric

    I couldn't agree more. It will be cold comfort to know that this is an international problem. In New Zealand national testing has been introduced into the early years (1-8) for the first time, and teachers have been marching in the streets in protest. Yes, it's about mistrust, and in mistrust's shadow lurks fear. Fear not only that our teachers can not be trusted, but fear too that if our children can not be measured, and shown by these measurements to be superior to their peers, they will never secure a happy future. And yet none of the things that are most valuable are by their nature competitive. We learn better when those around us learn, we laugh harder when those around us laugh, we love better when those around us love. Life is not a competition.


  3. I think society must protect children from bad schools or inept or just lazy educators, and I don’t know of any method for achieving that which does not entail some kind of evaluation of the child’s progress.

    On the other hand I fully agree that a superficial process of testing will do more damage than good. What I think is needed is a well designed, intrinsically flexible, and expensive testing process. And I strongly feel that it must include an hour of one-to-one oral testing in a relaxed and free-form environment administered by a specialist. Oral tests are far more powerful, allow the specialist to modulate her interaction depending on the child, and I believe allow for a fairly objective estimation of factors such as the child’s creativity, imagination, curiosity, critical thinking – factors which are very difficult to measure in written tests.

  4. Dianelos: The kind of testing you describe would clearly be far more effective in providing a useful qualitative assessment of how a school or teacher is doing (as opposed to providing artificial quantitative measures of something that can't be reduced to numbers in this way). But, as you note, it would be expensive--and for this reason if for no other it's unlikely to be implemented.

    And I'm not sure that some external agency coming in to assess outcomes (with money on the line) offers the best approach to protecting children from poor schools and teachers. I agree with Bernard that this is largely a matter of trust. My own instinct is that we're better served by focusing social attention on the production of dedicated and effective teachers, and on providing them with the resources for success--and then trusting them.

    In other words, make sure that teachers' education is of a high quality, that it prepares them well for educating our kids--and by all means test the newly minted teachers to ensure that they have the skills and training to be effective in the classroom. While that is no guarantee of having the occasional poor teacher slip in, a school is staffed by people who are in the education business because they care about teaching the next generation--and they have both the motivation and the means to pressure lazy teachers in their midst to shape up or ship out, to inspire one another to do better, to help each other become better, etc.

    There may be individual cases in which cronyism in a school keeps bad teachers employed--and external intervention may be called for in such isolated cases. But let's not let the whole system be built around the fear of such cases, with the effect of caring and creative learning communities being systematically diminished in the effort to identify and punish the occasional bad apple.

    We can design a system that is premised on trust--until evidence that the trust is unwarranted triggers an intervention; or we can design a system that is premised on mistrust, in which teachers must constantly prove themselves on pain of consequences (and so devote their careers to proving themselves to the powers-that-be rather than to educating our kids). I know which of these options I prefer.

    In short, let's treat teachers the way we do professionals in medicine and the law: Establish a rigorous process whereby teachers are trained and vetted--then trust them to do their jobs (and to be the first line of defense against those within their midst who don't).