Michael McGill is superintendent of schools in Scarsdale, Ne York, one of the nation’s most affluent districts. It has an excellent school system. Its students go to fine colleges. Yet even Scarsdale must submit to the half-brained testing and evaluation strategies dreamed up by non-educators and educators with minimal experience.
McGill is an articulate and wise leader. Here are his thoughts on the current situation, where he sees signs of hope as more people resist the testing mania:
My niece Amy is teaching middle school math in Queens, and for the last few weeks, her classes have been spending their time answering practice questions for the upcoming state test. It’ll be new this year, based on the national standards. The higher-ups say there’ll be a lot more failures. Amy worries about how that’ll help her kids, who struggle to start with.
She was pretty positive about the Common Core at the start. It was supposed to involve less content and more depth, and as she says, “Nobody will ever need to know a lot of the stuff we’ve always taught them.” As it’s turned out, though, she’s still expected to cover everything she did before and also prep her students for the exam.
And so it goes.
Standardized testing isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. A lean curriculum core is better than one that’s overflowing. But twelve years after parents in my own community had their children boycott New York’s eighth grade exams, the scene is depressingly familiar. The more test-driven the classroom and the higher the stakes of the test, the more:
• teachers cover everything that might be tested and neglect material that won’t be.
• They’re reluctant to take the time to explain in depth, explore or pursue student interests.
• They focus on test-taking strategies, memorization, drill and practice questions.
• Scores, not real learning, become the main objective of instruction.
• The test evaluates what can be crammed into students’ heads, not deep understanding.
These problems aren’t limited to places where the results are bad. Children in my own community do well on standardized tests, for example. Our school board says we should offer a deep, rich education and let the results take care of themselves. For close to two decades, I’ve criticized the misuses of standardized testing. But teachers and administrators are still wary.
If scores decline – when scores decline – as a result of the changes in the tests this year, what will the community do? What will happen when one elementary school’s results aren’t as good as another’s? Now that scores are going to be fed into a teacher rating formula, can anyone completely trust the school board or the superintendent’s assurances? Who thinks parents won’t compare one teacher against others?
So even when students succeed and leaders downplay standardized testing, teachers feel pressure to approach the exams strategically and to spend excessive time prepping for them. Principals don’t direct them to spend hours that way, but “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is tempting. Kids should have some familiarity with the tests; who’s going to stop the teacher who does a little – or a lot – more than familiarize them?
Still, as a New York commissioner of education once asked me – what’s the big problem? Why not get the highest scores in the galaxy and then take pride in them?
One reason is that the testing and accountability strategy doesn’t pay off in its own terms. Scores are better in a number of states – typical of what happens when teachers teach to the test in a high-stakes environment. But gains on the nation’s only independent measure of student learning – the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) – were greater in the years before the high-stakes testing movement than they have been since.
More important, the strategy reflects such a narrow vision of what education is. And also, time is blood. We have 180-some days to try to prepare kids for a future that’s being transformed daily by globalization and technology. Today’s distorted emphasis on testing is part of an education for the 1950’s. It just makes the job harder.
Teachers should be giving their pupils a personalized education, nurturing their creativity and desire to learn. Students need more opportunities to pursue their interests, initiate more of their own learning, work in collaboratively in teams, create and invent. They should be able to wrestle with complex questions that have meaning in the real world. This kind of teaching and learning take time.
Instead – even in schools that try to realize this vision of education – kids lose multiple days to test prep, administration and grading. The cost might be more acceptable if the benefit were worth it.
But the exams are imperfect and imprecise measures of limited knowledge, and their results are marginally useful. Disembodied numbers come back from the state weeks after the tests are given. Nobody can know precisely what questions a student missed because of test security concerns. Sometimes, the scores seem to fall into meaningful patterns, but often they don’t.
For an approach that’s supposed to be highly rational, this one isn’t.
Why, then, after all these years, are we still heading down this arid road? It’s not that the state education officials or the politicians and corporate leaders who support the approach haven’t heard about the problems. Many of us working educators can tell stories about the long, frustrating and ultimately pointless discussions we’ve had with elected and appointed officials and representatives of the business community.
One reason, to be sure, is financial. Testing is big business: There’s plenty of money to be made, supplying the schools with the tools of the trade – to paraphrase the now-obscure Country Joe McDonald and the Fish.
But the equally powerful reason is that many of these people are sincere. They honestly believe they’re saving children. The officials and the business folk know they’re right, and they have a profound disdain for the educators who, presumably, are responsible for the mess the schools are supposed to be in.
They’ve adapted a corporate strategy of metrics and accountability, certain it must work in schools just as well as it (again, presumably) does in business. For unclear reasons, they apply this model selectively. Unlike highly effective businesses, for example, they believe in treating all situations the same, regardless of objective differences: They don’t want to free effective, innovative or otherwise promising divisions from regulation. Still, they can’t be faulted for a lack of single-minded determination.
All things considered, in other words, it’s no wonder that the discredited school people are politically marginal. Or that a New York education chancellor has said the only way the ship will start to turn is if large numbers of parents begin to protest the direction it’s taking.
And in fact, we may be seeing the birth of a grass roots effort to restore balance to the school reform movement. After almost three decades in which states and, subsequently, the federal government have promoted the over-use and the misuse of standardized tests, Texas school boards are pushing back. Teacher protests and parent boycotts have begun to appear across the nation.
Whether these particular shoots will grow and flourish isn’t yet clear. But it’s spring, when signs of life are always hopeful. Sooner or later, the policy makers must come to understand that today’s grim, reductive emphasis on test scores won’t develop the thinking people our nation needs to compete and to lead in the new century. Our birthright is an education that realizes each individual’s human potential; only by honoring that legacy, can we fulfill America’s promise.