Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

[Susan notes: This is an op-ed not a letter. Write good letters, and you may be invited to write an op-ed.]

Published in News Herald

Do Standardized Tests Improve Teaching, Thinking?

A recent editorial page of The News Herald fairly bristled with commentary on the state of education in our school district. A community activist placed the blame for failing schools on teachers, while the official editorial voice of the paper credited educators with valiant efforts to improve "performance." A teacher targeted the superintendent and School Board for failing to provide teachers with wages and working conditions befitting professionals. All of these commentators, however, make one seriously flawed assumption: that high-stakes standardized testing will improve the quality of teaching and learning in Bay County.

Threatening teachers and administrators with loss of their jobs if test scores don't go up, as the superintendent and his minions have repeatedly done, generally does increase test scores, because it forces educators to teach to the test and turn schools into test prep centers. But does it really make our children better readers, writers and thinkers? Does it increase their love of learning and make them more likely to stay in school? A look at the effects of current efforts on the lives of real children suggests otherwise.

Standardized tests serve to narrow the curriculum. A recent article in The News Herald highlighting "Power Writing" as the vehicle that resulted in a neighboring district's improved scores on Florida Writes! is a case in point. Power Writing is a commercial, artificial, rigid, and formulaic approach to producing writing that serves no purpose in the real world. Instead of immersing students in rich text and providing them with opportunities to write in many genres, on topics that matter to them, for purposes and audiences of their own choosing, educators drill students in one narrow mode.
Teachers who have traditionally operated out of the conviction that children become better readers by reading, and who have supported reading development through independent, guided, shared, and whole-class reading of real books now find themselves having children read specially concocted "passages" in practice booklets. The effect of this shift was brought home to me in a dramatic way by a fourth-grader in a classroom I visited recently who asked, "What's your favorite test?"

I've also come to see standardized testing as an intellectual freedom issue. When teachers are forced to teach to the tests, classroom communities are deprived of the opportunity to ask their own questions, pursue their own projects, dig deeper into topics that interest them, rattle cages, tilt at windmills, question authority, rock boats, challenge oppression, create art, and all the other things that make us fully and freely human. What better way to assure a docile, malleable population than to keep students so busy with reductive skill building that no real questions ever arise?

Standardized test scores are most often used to rank and sort children, not to improve the quality of their lives or their learning. Low test scores may result in learners being shunted off into so-called remedial programs that generally provide more of the uninspired drills that have failed them already: Test scores are also used to determine who gets promoted, who gains entry into elite programs, and ultimately who graduates. What they really tell us is who has enjoyed more advantages in our society, and who will be left to bag the burgers and clean the beach.
The validity of standardized test - whether they actually measure what they claim to - has long been a concern of the test-making industry. Progressive educators, however, have begun to talk of "consequential validity" - that is, whether or not a given test will bring harm to the learner being forced to take it. For too many children, Florida's latest spate of standardized tests do not have consequential validity.

High-stakes testing pits student against student, teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, and in the process, encourages cheating. In Georgia, for example, only one incident of improper test administration was reported for a recent three-year period, but following the implementation of a new battery of standardized tests, 25 incidents, ranging from giving students answers to using confidential tests for practice, were reported from July of 1998 through March of 1999.
Texas, which has been in the vanguard of high stakes testing, has had criminal charges brought against one administrator who changed answer sheets, and the entire district faces civil sanctions. In Arizona, Alabama and Virginia, teachers and administrators have been charged with various forms of cheating. Closer to home, the Escambia school system recently uncovered evidence of test tampering.

Alternatives to High-stakes Testing

The elimination of high stakes testing would not mean that we have no way of tracking the progress of children and their schools. Portfolios, exhibitions, and other classroom-based forms of documenting and assessing learning provide a rich record that is both product-and process-oriented. This kind of assessment - used to inform instruction rather than to rank and sort learners - documents growth in all disciplines and in multiple intelligences. It can also be used as the basis for school, district, and state reporting. For program evaluation, limited use of standardized tests through sampling might be appropriate, with no scores reported for individual children.

If the state of Florida persists in forcing us to use outmoded, unjust, and counter-productive means of determining what our children know and can do, parents should be aware that they have the right to opt out of standardized tests, as families in Michigan and Massachusetts are now doing. In Chicago, students at the elite Whitney Young Magnet High School deliberately failed a new state-imposed test and are leading demonstrations against it. A brave Chicago teacher published parts of the new test to subject it to public scrutiny, and the School Board retaliated by suing him for $1 million. All over the country, parents, students, and teachers are organized against onerous testing; we do not have to submit meekly to whatever new learning impediment comes down the bureaucratic or legislative pipeline.

What if they have a standardized test and nobody picked up a No. 2 pencil?

Educator Gloria Pipkin is a resident of Lynn Haven.

Gloria Pipkin

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.