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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Testing Obsession Is Not Just a U.S. Problem

By Peter DeWitt — November 18, 2012 4 min read
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Competitive, difficult exams for which pupils must prepare by memorising large amounts of facts and concepts will promote motivation, solidify knowledge and guarantee standards.” The Guardian

In a Guardian article titled “Tough exams and learning by rote are the keys to success, says Michael Gove” Peter Walker wrote that U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove is promoting rote learning and high stakes testing. To those of us in the states, this either comes as welcomed relief that the U.S. isn’t the only country obsessed with high stakes testing or a sad commentary on education in other parts of the world.

How is it that people in positions of power such as this feel that testing is still one of the most important elements to a quality education? How can they make us believe that testing is what will show where there are discrepancies in the education offered to students? Isn’t that something that they know already and do not really need testing to show it? Instead of testing, shouldn’t they put their resources toward something more worthwhile?

In the address, titled In Praise of Tests, Gove describes the ideological underpinning to his planned shakeup of GCSE’s (General Certificate of Secondary Education) and A-levels, a philosophy which will further delight educational traditionalists but is likely to prompt criticisms that he is seeking a return to the teaching styles of the 1940s and 50s.

What makes this situation worse is that we often talk about the risk of losing creativity in schools but according to this article, Education Secretary Gove is promoting the loss of creativity. As we all, in the U.S. and U.K. move toward trying to increase inquiry based learning and a balance of teacher driven and student centered learning, his present stance is asking for teachers to go back to rows of students diving into rote learning, which is just really brainless regurgitation.

Free of Bias
So external tests are not only a way of levelling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice.” Although uniform tests may level the playing field because all students will take the same test, they still have bias within them. There have been many studies and court decisions stating that standardized testing has bias (Fair Test). These tests are not absent of prejudice, they are filled with them.

Tests are a snapshot of a moment in time, and the fact that people believe this is the appropriate way of to find whether children are learning or not is baffling to me as well as millions of educators and parents. Having one test, which comes with an immense amount of pressure on the part of students and teachers is not the way to address academic inequalities in education.

Taking the money spent on testing and using it for high quality before and after-school programs, providing resources to those schools that need it most, and providing teachers with high quality professional development is much more useful. In addition, offering different pathways for students is the way to ensure a better education. Not all students should be forced to follow the same path and take the same test. There are millions of students who have gifts that are getting lost because they are being prepared to take a test that will never show what they truly learn. It will only focus on what they don’t know and we are at risk that they will leave our schools, whether in the U.S. or U.K. feeling as though they are failures.

The Benefits of Failure?
“The corollary of this, he stresses, is that a proportion of pupils must fail: “For all these reasons exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it.”

That seems rather defeating and not very sporting. Students need to fail a test in order to get the support they need? Why wouldn’t we build a more proactive way to help students get the support they need besides waiting for them to fail a test they may never be able to pass in the first place? The reason educators are asking for no test at all is due to the fact that tests are really only fair to a very small percentage of students who are test takers.

In Gove, Ghandi and Grading, author David Price wrote, “It’s about now that his argument becomes, well, loopy: he claimed that academic tests - you know, the really hard ones that most people fail - have been a tool in the civil rights movement. And, of course, he has a point. Didn’t Gandhi famously say’ be the change you want to see in the world - you may turn over your papers now’? And then there was Martin Luther King’s promise that ‘I may not get to the mountain-top with you, but I’ll make sure it’s norm-referenced, because it can get pretty crowded up there’.”

Students can learn a great deal from failing (The Benefits of Failure). It provides them an opportunity to reinvent themselves. Even when students fail small tests they take in class it may teach them to study harder, but creating a test that pulls so much weight will not only leave students feeling defeated, it will leave them feeling ruined.

If policymakers want to create accountability standards that will help them justify their jobs, they should probably invest their time into creating accountability that will actually be helpful to students and educators.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.