President Obama and Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan announced this weekend that they plan to ask school leaders to significantly reduce the amount of classroom time that students spend taking tests. They have suggested a guideline that would reduce that number to two percent of the school year or less. Secretary Duncan has traveled thousands of miles to locales all across the country and he has learned that teachers, students and parents are all feeling overwhelmed by the massive amount of emphasis being placed on tests. The general consensus from all sides is that the tests are determining what happens in the classroom far too often, leaving students unmotivated and stressed. The announcement represents a dramatic shift in thinking about what constitutes a proper way to measure accountability in our nation’s classrooms. The question that remains is whether or not this will have any real impact on schools or if it will only be a symbolic gesture.
I tend to be critical of all politicians. I’m never all in for a single person or party because I have yet to find one with whom I one hundred percent agree. Instead I judge each situation individually. In this case I want to applaud both President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan for having the temerity to bring this issue to the forefront. It is about time!
Still, my experience with the political landscape of schools has me wondering just how successful such a push will be. The first thing that I noticed in reading various articles about this topic is that many school districts were delightedly assuring everyone that cutting back to two percent testing time is highly doable because most schools only spend about 2.43% of the total school year engaged in assessing students. I immediately realized that the powers that be in various locales were already parsing the truth by using statistics to their advantage. Obviously they are only counting the high stakes standardized state or national tests in their calculations. Nobody other than Secretary Duncan even mentioned the vast percentage of the school year that is devoted to teaching to the big test.
Virtually every teacher, student and parent knows that long before the accountability testing there are pre-assessments, campus based assessments, district wide assessments, teacher made tests and quizzes. Students spend huge chunks of time demonstrating their knowledge or lack of it. Furthermore virtually every lesson is based solely on following the blueprint for the big test from the state. What is not often mentioned is that there is big money in the process for test makers, many of whom haven’t been inside a classroom for years. The questions that they produce are often ambiguous and bear little relationship to the real world. Furthermore, study after study has demonstrated that white males are the most likely to be successful on the mass produced tests, probably because they tend to be created by men.
I was once part of a group of educators who answered questions from various standardized tests. We were given a few minutes to determine the correct response and then the facilitator revealed the correct answer, after which he took a poll to determine how we did as a whole. It didn’t take us long to notice that the white men in the group we all doing way better than the rest of us. Once we noted this trend the presenter went back to each of the questions and asked us to show with our hands which of the choices we had selected. On virtually every question the women in the room had chosen the same answer. When prompted to give the reasons why we felt that we were correct we had logical explanations that spoke to our experiences. In other words, we were not just guessing. We had sound reasoning but it did not correspond to that of the test makers. The men, on the other hand, had almost no problem seeing things in exactly the same light as those who had produced the questions and their answers. The situation became even more complex for those from different cultures. Everyone in the room answered based not just on knowledge but often on individual worldview. It just so happened that for the white men their way of looking at things matched most closely with the thinking of the test creators. What I fear most is that simply limiting the test taking time will not make the flaws in the tests themselves go away. As a society it is up to all of us to follow the President’s lead and continue a national discussion and study of what is good and what is bad about our current processes. As an educator I know that there are both merits and problems.
Before the emphasis on testing was so great it was fun to teach and to learn but all too often there were teachers who spent too much time on frivolous topics and too little on important ones. As a mathematics teacher in the higher grade levels I too many times received students who were ill prepared. Once the testing machine was put in place I had to admit that my students came to me with a much stronger foundation of critical skills. Still, many seemed to have somehow lost their love of learning and I personally felt more like I was herding cats that being a strong teacher. I often had to keep moving forward even when I knew that so many of my kids were not yet ready to do so. Lingering would have put them too far behind in the race to accomplish all of the required tasks. My only choice was to sneak in opportunities to review whenever I could. Nonetheless, I knew that if only I could have slowed my pace it would have been better.
Somewhere along the way we seem to have forgotten what the original testing focus was supposed to be. Assessments should always be designed with the sole purpose of determining the individual needs of each student. Once tests become ways of ranking schools or teachers or students they are a perversion. Our goal should always be to work toward success for all. When our status as professionals is judged purely on whether or not we are able to get all of our kids to the same place at the same time we are doing a disservice to so many youngsters, including our brightest and our most troubled. An emphasis on standardized testing encourages a lockstep approach to teaching that we innately know is abominable.
I applaud President Obama for having the courage to admit that we have been wrong in our approach to education in the past. The insanity began somewhere in the nineties and only began to accelerate over the years. It was an honest mistake albeit a very destructive one. We took a cue from the world of business and attempted to use hard data to demonstrate our successes and failures. Unfortunately determining the relative worth and abilities of human beings is far more complex than looking at scores on a series of tests. Even colleges are now admitting that much of the criteria used for admissions is flawed. Our young are a composite of so many traits, most of which are almost impossible to measure. Hard work, determination, creativity, integrity, grit, and confidence are only a few of the many qualities that propel people forward. For many future leaders the first step in overcoming challenges becomes proving that a low test score is not the sum total of their talents. Hopefully President Obama has broken the ice enough to encourage a national discussion that will this time include all of the stakeholders including the teachers who work in the trenches, the students who are the guinea pigs, and the parents who want the best possible world for their kids. We should be prepared for a show of smoke and mirrors from those who make millions from the testing industry and we must be willing to do battle with them. Their power is too great and not always in the best interest of our children. This is a very important issue and we all need to become involved.