Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Educational reform: Standardized tests not the way to inspire learning

Susan Notes:

I put this in 'good news' because Allen Koshewa offers such a wonderful example of what very good teaching looks like When one thing leads to another, children's interest and enthusiasm is engaged. And learning happens. This is why the Common Core standards and testing will fail. The terrible thing is that in the beginning hoopla phase, as Allen Koshewa observes, too many people will use up way too much time worrying about testing, leaving too little time for planting the tulips. . . and stimulating real learning.

Reader Comment: It's depressing to hear so much ignorance about the "value" of standardized testing. Anyone who has studied even the most rudimentary brain science would understand how limiting and potentially harmful such narrow standards of learning are to the developing mind:



The ugly truth is that those in power are pushing standardization and data-driven methods because that's where the money is. It's no coincidence that the profits and stock of educational publishing and testing companies have skyrocketed since this numbers and statistics mania was ushered in with NCLB. The only people benefiting from standardization are the CEOs and stockholders of those companies—and the politicians they convince to legislate education "reform" that demands data and standardization.

Allen, thank you for your eloquent essay. Let's hope the politicians read it. I found your words so compelling that I used them as the basis of a blog post. Testing or Teachable Moments?
I hope it helps gets your message out.

By Allen Koshewa

Gov. John Kitzhaber's new educational reform package will link money that schools receive to "results." It follows the path that most school reform movements in the country have taken: Minimize the teacher's role in deciding what to teach and how to teach it, and use standardized test scores to evaluate students, teachers and schools. This ignores the most basic tenet of learning: inspiring learning.

Focusing on testing discrete standards distracts teachers from thinking about the essential role of student questions and interests, which should be the starting point of all learning. Students may not jump up and down in excitement when asked to read instructions or find the area of a rectangle, but if they are figuring out how to set up goal posts and measure a new soccer field, they probably will.

Unfortunately, the privileged position of educational standards and the standardized tests that always dog their heels have discouraged many teachers from departing from test preparation to explore the topics that build community through shared exploration of topics that students have chosen or stumbled upon.

Several years ago, after I brought in tulips from my garden, my fifth-grade students wanted to plant their own. I learned that few students in my school's high-poverty community had ever planted anything, so we planted tulips (not in the curriculum). In the process, one student found part of a rusted horseshoe, so we studied the history of the neighborhood (not in the curriculum), discovering that a farm had existed there 90 years earlier. Then, because of the proliferation of questions about the artifacts we'd unearthed, we studied archaeology (not in the curriculum). With the new push for common core standards nationwide, perhaps no student in any fifth grade in the United States will plant tulips, explore the history of his or her neighborhood or learn about archaeology ever again.

The high-stakes punishments of state tests are even more daunting than their dry emphasis on isolated skills and facts. Davis Elementary, where I teach, won awards from the state for its rising achievement for several years -- until last year, that is, when we could no longer meet the No Child Left Behind requirement that 10 percent more students pass the standardized tests yearly. Except for layoffs of most of our instructional assistants and the enrollment of some eager, intelligent new children who came directly from refugee camps with no previous knowledge of English, nothing has really changed at our school. Yet the emphasis on test scores that ignore the effects of poverty and the research on how long it takes to learn a new language changed our official status from a "champion school" to a school that has failed to meet "adequate yearly progress."

I continue to break the rules by letting students guide the curriculum. OK, technically it's not breaking the rules, since I address standards within these inspiring learning projects. But the kind of inquiry approaches I advocate are dying on the vine while teachers scramble to "cover" every standard that might show up on a test, a test that benefits the corporations that publish them more than it does students and teachers.

What will it take to break the spell that this testing system has cast upon our legislators?

Allen Koshewa lives and teaches in Portland.

— Allen Koshewa
The Oregonian



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.