Park Elementary School. Columbia, PA. June 2012
Five children with nose bleeds, others with nausea, frequent bathroom trips, one student pounding on the desk and shouting “I’m going to fail!”, another sleeping refusing to take the test…This is the scene a local elementary school principal painted of a standardized test week in his report to the school board last month.
I was surprised that the principal shared these details at a public meeting. Despite the power of the high-stakes testing model in the U.S., I believe most people think we’re testing kids too much. No one sees the effects more than those who work in schools, but many teachers are scared to say that publicly. And administrators…they not only can’t say it publicly, they actually have to espouse the values of the system (in order to motivate teachers and students to participate in it and thereby perpetuate it). So even in this vivid scene described by the principal, the message was not a clear condemnation of the testing culture and how it hinders a learning culture, but a foreshadowing of possible low scores and a pre-emptive explanation.
I don’t know what that principal’s opinions on high-stakes tests are. Very few who are critical would be willing to say so to their local reporter. And I have to assume there are plenty of administrators who have either drunk the kool-aid about corporate education reform or just aren’t prone to questioning orders. You can tell which ones they are from the slideshows they bring the board, full of charts and jargon comparing every three month interval of student scores in math and reading.
But even those administrators are compelled to admit that the mandate of No Child Left Behind — that 100% percent of students reaching math and reading proficiency by 2014 isn’t going to happen. (I’m not making assumptions here, I’ve heard them say it.) But no one talks about the obvious next question…so then what? So far, the most extreme consequences faced by schools that consistently missed required test targets have been closure, total administrative overhaul or take-over by charter school companies. What will happen in a year, when all of America’s schools are unable to make the required goals?
In his most recent TED talk on education, Sir Ken Robinson (see video below) says that tests aren’t inherently bad, which is true. Assessment in its most basic definition is a way of measuring outcomes. We could envision many ways of assessing learning, with the multiple choice and essay tests that dominate schools now being just one of them. But there’s something wrong when test results become the goal, instead of the learning goal being what’s measured by test results. There’s something wrong when tests become so important that other subjects and skills are excluded from school. And there’s something wrong when the way teachers teach is driven by whatever can earn massive corporations more money. Robinson nailed it about the flaws of the testing culture in his talk, but he neglected this root cause that is driving education policy.
I navigate a swampland when it comes to public education. As a local reporter, I must wade through the muck and tell a story about what’s happening in schools today. Too often, I see articles that just report the test scores and accompanying labels given to schools. The labels are jargon like “Corrective Action I” but mostly get read by the public and “failing” or “not failing.” These articles are like reporting that schools are sinking without pointing out that they’re built on a swamp in the first place. I see the swamp. And I see pockets of resistance— teachers boycotting tests, students walking out—but none of these actions are happening here. So in my own stories, I try to describe the swamp and the conditions that create it, but without local sources to call a swamp a swamp, eventually I hit that journalistic wall of “editorializing.” And I have no idea whether people reading my articles even absorb the context I’m trying to provide.
A 40-year teacher resigns
Diane Ravitch on low-performing schools
Testing the tests