Testing Our Nation’s Children Out of Learning

The alarm clock has been ringing for 30 minutes and I’m still not ready to get myself out of bed and go to work.  This is the week of PSSA’s— hours devoid of any real academic stimulation.  The real lesson being learned: some bureaucrat who has less knowledge about education has more power to tell us what to do with our classes than we do.  As I sit here watching the painstaking, dull, frustrating, and often tortuous process of test-taking, I can’t help but wonder: Isn’t there a better way to show the value of our nation’s children?  The mechanistic government machine finds it ok to see our children as numbers on a page mixed in with millions of other number to use complicated and often faulty and biased statistical methods to show whether or not we’re giving our children a quality education.  I can tell you the answer to that question without the test— we’re not.  

The very basis of our educational system is wrought with inequity.  Rather than seeing a child for what they really are and examining the whole person, we see them as a numeral that lies on a side of the line of succeeding or failing.  It should come as no surprise that this is the end game of our educational systems.  They are doing exactly what they have been designed to do— assimilate people into a culture of compliance and dismissing them if not.  If we want something different then we need to step up and radically change the system.  This might need to start with a deeper look into why and how we assess student learning.  

What Are We Really Assessing?  

TestAre these tests really measuring excellence or are they measuring something else entirely?  In many ways the test is more a function of one’s ability to conform to the language of the power culture.  The test is written in a way that requires a level of life experience which is often more accessible to those in the culture in power.  If your state’s anything like mine— what is being assessed or measured is very different than what they claim to be measuring.  The scores of the system seem to be a better measure of poverty and lack than of actual student achievement.

The system is set up in a way that does little to reduce inequity.  Rather it adds fuel to the fire and continues to widen the gap.  How can we give a standardized assessment when the quality of the education that students are receiving is anything but standard?  Students across the country are shuffled into schools that receive very different levels of funding.  How can we expect the same quality of education from a school that receives 4,500 of funding per student and a school that receives more than double that?  When the gap refuses to budge, why is it that everyone is surprised?  This country has done just about everything in its power to ensure that it doesn’t move.  To put another nail in the coffin, failing to live up to adequate yearly progress is met with punitive measures.  Rather than giving failing schools a hand up, they get pushed down further.

Faulty Statistics?  

In a world where big data rules, our country is still basing information on a considerably small number of indicators.  We have also somehow forgotten that in no way is the test an indicator of student growth or progress.  The students are asked to succumb to 2-3 weeks of testing and yet the test tells the students very little about their own growth or achievement.  In an effort to compare “apples to apples,” two entirely different groups of students take a different test and information is gathered about progress made by the school.  Even further, some states such as PA the cut scores for each group (advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic) aren’t even created until after the students have taken the test.  The use of this measure makes proficiency a moving target and 100% proficiency an impossibility.  Even my 7th graders with a very basic understanding of statistics know that this process doesn’t make the cut for sound data collection.

Every year, millions of children take this test.  At the beginning of the school year, they get one measure to show whether or not they are meeting the state expectations.  For many students, this number comes back as basic or below basic.  This measure does nothing to show the outstanding progress that the student has made throughout the year.  It also doesn’t recognize the humanity of the person behind the number.

Over-Funded and Ineffective

Wouldn’t any other government spending that was this ineffective have been shut down a long time ago?  In our country, we spend millions of dollars a year on testing and the results seem to come back the same each year.  The achievement gap remains as wide as ever and there is very little significant movement of scores in any one district.

Why do we spend so much money on creating tests to tell us something we already know?  Couldn’t we obtain the same information while spending significantly less money?  We could use this money to help prop up schools that are continually underperforming.  There must be a reason that they continue to spend all of this money on the tests rather than leveling the playing field for underperforming schools.  If it isn’t achievement, what is it?  I’m sure we all could provide a few speculative responses.

Sucking the Joy Out of Learning

test-anxietyI am thankful that these are the only weeks I have to think about state testing.  I teach in a school where teaching to the test is in no way an expectation.  For many teachers across the country, this is not the case.  The test is what rules what is being taught in school.  Schools are beholden to the numbers as they are seen on the assessment.  For charter schools, the test scores are the difference between the school remaining open or being shut down.

There is nothing wrong with assessing student learning across the state.  We, as teachers, use assessment to determine student learning every day.  It is an integral part of how we develop and adapt our lesson planning.  When testing becomes something that schools are beholden to and the only measure by which our students and schools are seen, there is a problem.  The problem lies in the way that we treat the content of test—like it is the only thing worth learning.  Sometimes things that are worth learning are learned not for a specific purpose, but for the joy that comes with it.  In a nation where we say that we want to create “lifelong learners,” we have done a lot to sap the joy in learning that is necessary to create the type of learners we seek.

Final Thoughts

As I sit and watch students bubble in one answer after another, I can’t help but think that with each response we are moving further away from the type of education that we need in this country and the type of education our students deserve.  If we are trying to create a country of robots primed to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet, then we are on the right track.  If we to foster young people who are empathetic, kind, creative, innovative, knowledge-seeking individuals, then we are heading further and further down the wrong road.  From where I’m sitting, the quality of a person’s character means far more than a correct response to multiple choice question ever will.  

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