Standardized Testing: It’s Time to Talk About It

The heartbreaking paradox exists in U.S. public education that conscientious teachers want students to think and to learn during the time they spend together, yet those same teachers must produce a sufficient proportion of students who can pass standardized tests. As the ill-starred students graduate without having learned much beyond how to choose A, B, C, or D, it’s becoming increasingly evident that real learning and overemphasis on test-taking are mutually exclusive. In “Warnings from the Trenches”, originally published in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, former Maryland public school Social Studies teacher Kenneth Bernstein describes it like this:

“We entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students who passed through our classrooms. Many of us are leaving sooner than we had planned because the policies already in effect and those now being implemented mean that we are increasingly restricted in how and what we teach.”

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Remember the dread that this box of pencils could inspire?

Federal policies such as 2001’s No Child Left Behind and 2009’s Race to the Top squeeze teachers into ever narrower pigeonholes while the students languish uninspired before seas of multiple choice bubbles waiting to be filled in (No. 2 pencil, please). NCLB mandated that states implement reading and math standards then measure student progress in those areas with annual testing in grades 3 through 8. Schools, moreover, are also measured against each other and “graded” on number of students meeting the standards. Due to the rigors imposed by these well-meant (insofar as originally intended to help disadvantaged students by leveling the academic playing field) but ultimately disastrous policies, teachers often face no choice but to “teach to the test.” If it’s not on a standardized test, it will probably fall to the wayside. Goodbye, foreign languages. So long, art. See ya later, music.

Those three things just listed have other important common characteristics besides being unlikely to show up on standardized tests: first, they are emphasized at The New Century School; second, they are noted for cultivating higher-order creative and critical thinking skills. Standardized tests, by contrast, are widely criticized as setting impossibly high stakes, creating a climate of cheating, and being of such poor quality and design that they don’t allow students to demonstrate what they may have actually learned. Some say these tests threaten to turn kids into a generation of mindless drones rather than intellectually curious, well-adjusted people who can think on their feet—you know, human beings.

Standardized Testing’s Negative Effects

Stemming from such adversity, “Warnings from the Trenches” was written as an address to college-level educators. Bernstein says to them,

“The structure of [elementary] testing has led to students arriving at [high] school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge . . . Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.”

Reading this lament is unsettling enough, but the distress only grows when you consider the clear implication that the problem originates in elementary school but impacts a student’s entire academic career. When Bernstein’s article was reprinted in the Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet last month, comments poured in from instructors who had similar experiences. One college professor writes:

” . . .Within the first two weeks of each semester, I can identify students who were home-schooled or who attended private high schools. Why? Because they participate in class discussions. Because they can apply theory in meaningful ways. Because they can find examples that exemplify those theories in the world at large. Because they can write a proper sentence and a proper paragraph. Publicly schooled kids, for the most part, can’t do any of those things.”  

It’s clear: uncritical use of standardized testing has deleterious effects on both teacher and student. A pilot study compiled by the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing reported that at their worst, standardized tests:

  • Narrow and trivialize the curriculum. The focus of instruction shifts to easily assessed fragments of topics and away from significant or broad knowledge acquisition.
  • Exclude topics and skills not likely to appear on the test. Computer skills, long-term or collaborative projects, and even science at the lower grades get pushed out of curricula. (Notably, this finding was specifically from Maryland schools.)
  • Reduce learning to rote memorization of basic facts. Higher-order thinking skills get short shrift insofar as multiple-choice formats don’t require organization and composition of ideas or words to be answered.
  • Demand too much classroom time for test preparation. One study found that test prep occupied 10% of overall elementary class time.
  • Restrict how teachers teach. To prepare students for the testing environment, teachers often evaluate in-class work with a test-like, worksheet-like format—drilling.
  • Reduce time spent with individual students as well as instructional differentiation. One size fits all. It’s standardized, after all.
  • Exclude the student’s say in his or her own education. Gone is choice, guided exploration, and intellectual curiosity. Kids (and teachers) have to “stick to the program.”

And that’s not even taking into consideration the mental and physical health problems brought on by the stress of high-stakes testing. Kids exhibit gastrointestinal upset and regressive behavior, while teachers fight stress headaches in the days and hours leading up to the dreaded Test Time. NCLB also precipitated a rather ironic outcome: 19 states lowered their academic standards in order to show better test scores. No wonder, then, that in 2012 the United States ranked only 17th out of 49 countries in education. Worse, most other countries were showing improvements in academic matrices, whereas the United States’ performance was described as “hardly remarkable.” Ouch!

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized reading test.

An example of Maryland's 3rd-grade standardized math test.

An example of Maryland’s 3rd-grade standardized math test.

TNCS’s Approach to Standardized Testing

At TNCS, as the elementary program grows, standardized testing looms in the near future. The 2013–2014 school year will accommodate students through 4th grade. Public schools starting at 3rd grade in our state are subject to the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) to comply with the federal NCLB act. Being an independent school affords much more flexibility as well as choice in this matter, fortunately for TNCS.

Lest we throw the baby out with the bath water, it’s important to remember that schools need a means of assessing their curricula and the implementors of those curricula as well as student performance. The above criticisms apply to the worst-case scenario. What a carefully considered assessment situation can offer is a reliable way to evaluate academic achievement and to maintain school accountability without sacrificing core values. So, although we’re probably stuck with standardized testing in some form, rest assured parents—school administrators vow that TNCS elementary instruction will never deteriorate to teaching to the test. Though the standards are certainly covered, “[We are] committed to providing each child the opportunity to become an independent, secure, and balanced human being. Each child cultivates his or her natural intellectual curiosity while developing leadership skills and the ability to think critically. We embrace the individual and design developmentally appropriate activities and lessons to engage and enrich.” Many such engaging and enriching activities have been profiled in this blog, such as learning Mandarin and Spanish. Learning foreign languages is key to developing the problem-solving skills that so many students currently lack (see Multilingualism at TNCS: Optimizing Your Child’s Executive Function). Providing art instruction is another way TNCS cultivates those character skills that some public school curricula sadly can’t begin to address (see The Importance of Being Artistic).

Hope for the Future

It’s also possible that the the current federal administration will continue taking steps to reverse some of the harm to public education done by NCLB. In 2010, the blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB is an offshoot) was released but stalled in Congress. The Obama administration countered by giving 34 eligible states plus D.C. the flexibility to expand academic performance measures, such as writing and social studies proficiency. Maryland is one of the states no longer suffocating under the restrictive NCLB measures. We can hope, right?

In the meantime, an “A+” goes to schools like TNCS, committed to providing a well-rounded, progressive education that benefits the whole child, not just the test score.

What do you have to say about this important subject? Please contribute thoughts, questions, and comments. Your participation in this discussion will help TNCS forge the way to a brighter future for elementary education in Baltimore. Our thanks once again to TNCS Enrollment Coordinator Robin Munro for suggesting this worthwhile and very relevant topic.

5 thoughts on “Standardized Testing: It’s Time to Talk About It

  1. TNCS contacted Kenneth Bernstein, who has become rather a vigilante education reformer, for some insight on how to continue to develop the TNCS elementary program with its integrity intact. He responded immediately saying that he would pass along our request to some people with more relevant (i.e., elementary and Montessori education) expertise.

    Please monitor this thread for those remarks to come.

    • Thoughts for TNCS from Kenneth Bernstein:

      “Given that children develop at different rates, and the same child can be at very different developmental stages for language and for math, preparing a child for state standards or Common Core Standards and the tests based on them is inherently violative of what is the best educational practices for that child.

      In general, children who have been through a thorough grounding in either of the Italian approaches (the other being Reggio Emelia) are far better prepared to take ownership of their own learning, and over the long term will perform on a superior level, sometimes with that even being reflected in the ridiculous tests our educational policy is now imposing.

      Thus, I am not sure I can offer any constructive advice. About all I can say is that if you are a Montessori school, operate completely by Montessori standards. I would suspect that as students move up the grades, the experience of learning three different language simultaneously will lead to their performing better on understanding of language, but with some risk that test items narrowly focused on a particular application of English may be something of a stumbling block.

      As for math-related testing, whatever real math they will need to know is far better learned in practical application while exploring their interests, and whether or not it means lower performance on standardized tests at lower grades, will be more than made up for through upper grades.”

  2. Pingback: The Reaction has been overwhelming | Academe Blog

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