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Cheating Our Kids: The Crisis of Standardized Testing in Public Schools

Standardized testing is not just a reality of the educational system, it has become the driving force behind it, with reprehensible consequences. He says this must stop.


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by Nate Walker

On August 13th, two weeks before the Detroit Federation of Teachers officially went on strike, I interviewed with Detroit Public Schools. Although I had been working for Detroit Public Schools for the past four years, I recently finished my state teaching certification, and am now officially considered “highly qualified” to teach our youth. Although I was assured my position before the interview, it was a necessary but irksome procedure of district bureaucracy.

As I drove to the school’s center building, I rehearsed answers to potential questions. I tried to concisely articulate my teaching philosophy, and reminded myself of successful classroom management techniques. While waiting in the office lobby, I flipped through my portfolio, stopping at every page that had a picture of a former student. Each picture reminded me of a relationship built on a shared six hours for a hundred and eighty-one days, some of which have blossomed into friendships. I smiled. Then my name was called, and the interview began.

When I returned to my car an hour later, I was frustrated, discouraged and angry. As expected, I was hired on the spot. But the aggravation I felt was far more disturbing than any conversations I would have about district mismanagement and contractual shortcomings in the upcoming weeks. During the interview, I was not asked about teaching philosophies, past experiences, or building a classroom community. I was never given the opportunity to share strategies for helping children become active readers. The district wasn’t even concerned with whether or not I had goals as an educator. Instead, I was asked a series of questions about the content of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), a state-wide standardized test.

The interviewer probed my understanding of the MEAP test’s structure, and asked how I would prepare my students for specific portions of the exam. The interview then became centered around the direct instruction reading curriculum purchased by Detroit Public Schools with the hope that it would improve standardized test performance. The interviewer only seemed concerned with whether or not I could list the components of this curriculum. She asked if I could name the four reading skills identified by the program, but never questioned how I planned to implement these programs. We never discussed children or learning. Instead, it was as if I was being quizzed on an instructional manual for MEAP success.

The interview made it clear to me that in the eyes of the Detroit Public schools, The people in the classroom were secondary to the information they were expected to receive. I felt like a technician and was not sure if I wanted to be a teacher anymore.

Much has been written about how standardized tests are culturally biased and only measure certain forms of intelligence based on rigid standards. Nonetheless, they are still accepted as an educational reality, even though most educators openly disagree with the merit of the tests. In fact, several of the administrators I have worked with have openly chastised the MEAP test only to shrug their shoulders and then profess that they are something we have to deal with, especially if we intend to keep our jobs. It is time we recognized the larger impact that our compliance with standardized tests has on a larger educational climate.

Standardized testing is not just a reality of the educational system, it has become the driving force behind it, with reprehensible consequences. In Detroit, the MEAP test dictates our pedagogical practices, and determines both how and why we educate our children. Even if we believe MEAP’s contents will ultimately benefit the future lives of our city, this connection to future life skills is lost. Scoring well on the test has become more important than the concepts the test is suppose to measure.

Our society defines successful schools by their ability to prepare students to output information. This educational paradigm emphasizes a product, high test scores, over any educational process of developing skills - skills such as critical thinking and the ability to ask questions, skills that are imperative for any potential citizen.

Emphasizing test performance not only impedes an educator’s ability to prepare students to become lifetime learners, but creates an educational environment that does not even really consider children. Every professional development workshop I have attended this year has been centered on MEAP preparation. The district is explicitly asking us to “teach to the test.” This has led to a harsh bureaucratic atmosphere in the name of accountability. Administrators and specialists evaluate teachers’ performance according to whether or not they are preparing students for the MEAP, instead of whether or not they are engaging students in meaningful lessons.

Accountability is certainly important, but we need to be accountable to student growth and development, not to a single test. When educators feel a greater responsibility to succeed on a test than to their students, lessons and tools are not selected for their value to the students, but for the potential ability to raise test scores.

The urgency to perform well on the MEAP test stems from the funding tied to successful scores. The drive to achieve on the test has very little to do with student growth, and more with procuring future funding for the school. In other words, schools are not emphasizing test performance because of a deep philosophical belief that it will be educationally beneficial for their students; they are focusing efforts on test preparation to ensure the their school’s survival. Schools fear that they will lose resources or be closed down if they are not proficient, so they find it necessary to focus massive amounts of resources on preparing for the test.

Certainly federal and state legislation has increased the pressure on school districts to perform by threatening the loss of funding. At the same time, school districts are spending an exorbitant amount of money to prepare and implement these tests. There needs to be a cost benefit analysis measuring the amount of money received from taking and performing well on the test, versus the amount of money the district spends to prepare for the test.

This fall, shortly after a teacher strike against district mismanagement of funds, my school has received a seemingly endless supply of test prep books solely designed for the MEAP and professional development workshops. Many striking teachers demanded that the district allocate more money for classroom supplies, but should we continue to strive for increased funding for materials that have little value for students’ education?

We must no longer allow standardized testing to dictate our educational institutions, nor can we shrug it off as a reality of education. As educators, we can hold our schools accountable by demanding curriculum and instructional practices that encourage human development.

The first step is recognizing that we have a powerful voice. We can demand a cost benefit analysis for compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act and other legislation that mandates high stakes testing. We can also boycott the test. Parents have the option to refuse that their child takes the MEAP test. Similarly, suppose teachers and students refused to attend school on test taking days, and instead met to discuss the potential for real education in Detroit. The district and the state would be forced to reevaluate the whole purpose of education.

Nate Walker is a 7th grade English teacher at Cerveny Middle School in northwest Detroit. He is a member of the Detroit Summer Collective.

— Nate Walker
Critical Moment


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