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.

Imagination Playground Comes to TNCS

“Play is the work of the child,” said Maria Montessori a century ago, and with that simple yet compelling concept, launched a revolution in early childhood education. The Montessori method is often mistakenly faulted for not making room for “imaginative play,” but the converse is actually true, and it’s also why the method is so downright effective. By integrating “work” (i.e., learning) with materials and lessons that children are naturally drawn to, the Montessori method allows kids to do what they do best—play, explore, touch, smell, absorb—but in a constructive, productive way. In other words, they are learning because they want to without even realize it’s happening. It’s sheer genius.

Fast-forward to this century, and an offshoot of this concept has begun to take root: play facilitated by “playworkers.” Playworkers describe (they resist defining it—you’ll see why) play as “a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated.” Activities such as building a sand castle and playing make-believe fit this description, whereas playing Angry Birds on an iPad is something else entirely (no judgment implicit here, parents!). It’s no accident that the playwork model of play sounds a lot like what Dr. Montessori had in mind. Playworkers’ (also called “play associates”) roles are to be the caretakers of the play environment. Unlike the bored, inattentive playground monitor of yore, these are trained adults who oversee an open setting in which children can direct their own play, maintaining a safe, welcoming environment for them.

Trained to what, exactly? Enter Imagination Playground, The New Century School’s latest schoolwide initiative to ensure a happy, adjusted, engaged student body. Launching soon, a focus on constructive play is what makes Imagination Playground a natural fit for TNCS. Says school cofounder Jennifer Lawner, “We will begin using it in the gym space during school hours and also make it available to The Lingo Leap for birthday parties and other activities.”

So What is Imagination Playground, Exactly?

Imagination Playground blocks close-up

A close-up of the foam blocks . . . makes you want to reach out, grab one, and start playing!

The flagship Imagination Playground opened in New York City in 2010; since then, more than 700 Imagination Playground sets have been implemented internationally . . . including right here in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, very soon. To backtrack a bit, Imagination Playground is a “play system that encourages unstructured, child-directed ‘free play.’” It looks like giant Tinker Toys—only soft, on an extremely large scale, and powder blue! Developed by the architectural firm The Rockwell Group, this play system “in a box” (or cart, as the case may be) can be used anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and comprises three key elements:

1. Manipulable Environment: Traditional playgrounds consist of fixed equipment. The experience kids get from swinging or sliding is somehow passive, even though they are actively moving. There is still the element of deriving enjoyment passively rather than having created/designed the experience. Not so here, where kids manipulate the play environment according to their own lights, then do with it what they will.

2. Loose Parts: An assortment of age-appropriate “found parts” can be integrated with the signature blue building blocks to expand on and extend play in new directions.

3. Play Associates: Workers are trained with a specific curriculum developed by KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “saving play” as well as addressing America’s “play deficit” to properly implement and oversee an Imagination Playground.

According to Imagination Playground website’s FAQs, “This unique combination of elements enables children to create a great new playground each time they visit.” Click here for a video demonstration/profile.

More About the Blocks, Please

These are really the core of the Imagination Playground. The biodegradable foam blocks are nontoxic, cleanable, recyclable, resistant to microorganisms, and nonflammable. They are all blue—no variations are possible. This is to both encourage the use of, that’s right, imagination, rather than getting distracted by colors (or worse, fighting over them) as well as because that color was best received among kid focus groups. The blocks kit includes shapes like “l’il cheeses,” “clover gears,” and “arched chutes.” Are you getting excited yet? This basic kit can enhanced with angles and curves add-on sets to build endless combinations of kid-engineered “playgrounds.” They also promote collaboration among children to build their place space together.

And the Play Associates?

Must be the world’s best job, right? Probably pretty close, though training is a nonnegotiable prerequisite. This job is really more about managing the environment than playing with kids, however. Performing safety checks, setting up and putting away the loose parts, and cleaning the materials are their primary responsibilities, all to enable kids to let their imaginations take them where they will. “Play Associates set up and step back.”

As stated above, Play Associates are a kind of “playworker,” a profession written extensively about by Penny Wilson in the U.K., herself a professional playworker. Together with a nonprofit organization right here in our own backyard, Ms. Wilson and the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, MD aim to “[establish] playwork as a profession in the U.S. . . . [in] its efforts to restore play to children’s lives.” Read their Playwork Primer 2010 here.

Play: Not Something to Mess Around With

In the end, there’s a very serious side to play—not in a bad way, but in terms of the no-nonsense list of benefits that this kind of play yields. Playing with loose and found parts, researchers agree, hones cognitive, creative, and social development. In fact, it is precisely through play that kids develop. By playing, they are actually transforming their dreams into reality as noted pediatrician-turned-psychoanalyst David Winnicott believed and for whom the concept of play was a central motif. Tied to influential architect Simon Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts:

“in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity and the possibility of discovery are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”

and the fundamental logic of Imagination Playground emerges. Did you watch the video yet? Those parent and education professional testimonials were full of words like “problem-solving,” “engaged,” “higher-level thinking,” “teamwork,” and even “character strengths like grit, resilience, and self-control.” (Remember education researcher/author Paul Tough? One of the NYC school principles he wrote about, Dominic Randolph, is an Imagination Playground advocate and user.) All of these blog themes are really starting to, uh, “connect”!

For a final word on the child’s sheer driving need to play, here is an excerpt from an interview with playworker Penny Wilson in the American Journal of Play:

“It is a common mistake that adults make to think that play is frivolous and fun, a pretty frill of childhood. But play not only develops physical and mental strength and agility, it is the mechanism by which children work out their thoughts and emotions. As adults we struggle to explain and understand ourselves and the things that happen around us. We wrestle with words. For example, I find it very difficult to capture the words I need to explain this thought to you now. Children have exactly the same need to grapple with their thoughts. But they use their playing as their language.”

Please contribute to this dialogue; let us know your thoughts or share an anecdote in the Comments section!