School Climate & Safety Opinion

President Obama, Are You Sure Standardized Testing Is the Problem?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 27, 2015 4 min read
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President Obama, it isn’t the standardized tests that are the problem! This is the difficulty with too many cooks in the kitchen, and no recipe. Everyone has an opinion, objections, suggestions, and solutions, even the POTUS. All the presumed solutions are exhausting the system and do little to improve the system for the students. First, there has to be time spent truly discovering what the issues are. We need standards, measures, 21st century curriculum, interventions, supports, and ongoing training. The last rock on the pile of problems was the standardized test rock. So if we take that rock off the pile, we are still left with the pile of challenges exist just under that one. There are competing solutions all focused on an assumed root cause. There are layers of these solutions that now have landed on the shoulders of the students. This last straw that broke the camel’s back is the amount of standardized testing. Too much? Who placed the requirement there in the first place and why? The answer, he admitted, was partially in the hands of lawmakers.

...the Obama administration declared Saturday that the push had gone too far, acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests, and urged schools to step back and make exams less onerous and more purposeful (NY Times).

Nibbling at the Edges
But stepping back and balancing the number of tests a student takes is once again nibbling at the edges of a much larger issue. From a political perspective, it might quiet the storm of opposition and save the standards but isn’t it just the same reactivity that got us here in the first place? Is the issue too many tests or is it that the tests don’t measure what is taught and learned or is testing, itself, no longer the right answer? How do we know? Are the curriculum and the accompanying standards understood and implemented in similar fashions across the nation, no matter whether the school is rural or urban, wealthy or poor? How are we addressing the readiness differences of 5 year olds in an inner city school and those in a wealthy suburban school? How will the tests reveal for progress and will the results be compared and why? What accommodations can be made for when a teacher actually does all that he or she can do to encourage and support students who are unable, due to extraneous circumstances, to succeed...how can that be revealed in results? Is a bell curve the expectation we should be looking for? And rather than focusing on the measure of a changing system, what can the legislature do to support the changes and look to measures with consequences down the line? What is the problem? Teachers? Curriculum? Standards? Professional Development? Leadership? Funding? Poverty? Inequity? We first must come to an understanding of the problem.

Where is the push coming from and why does it continue to be so short sighted? Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto comes to mind. Perhaps it is clearer when talking about medicine, but his lessons are helpful. Whether a man entering the emergency room having been stabbed, or a youngster drowning in freezing cold water, the stories of their survival are a result of knowing the right questions to ask, working together with other professionals who are knowledgeable in complementary areas and yes, timing and sometimes miracles.

Educators Know How This All Plays Out in Schools
Each child brings a different set of skills, abilities, and problems; some familiar, and some more radical like the stabbed or the drowned. Each teacher brings a different set of skills, some similar, some individual, to their work. Who is the nearby colleague or expert who can be called in if the student’s need becomes urgent? Are they led forward in an environment in which sharing of talent is expected and supported? Are they led forward in an environment in which new learning is expected and shared? Are they led forward in an environment in which risk-taking is valued and highlighted? Are they led forward in an environment in which they feel valued and respected?

The first step in finding a solution is identifying the problem, and we think that has been done. If the mutually accepted objective is to have ALL children be prepared as 21st century citizens who are college and career ready, the question becomes “How do we do that?” In a subtle shift, the question has morphed into how do we measure progress toward these new standards.

Many Will Applaud Fewer Tests But Will that Resolve the Issue?
What we need is a voice calling out to say, “How can we come together to make American schools the best environments for our children to learn, environments where they think creatively and critically, communicate in a variety of genres, and develop skills and understanding of a variety of subject areas, collaborate in trans-disciplinary subjects and learn from and with teachers who are supported colleagues and partners. If the nation’s attention focused on the future of schools, we would be better prepared to measure student achievement. In the meantime, someone needs to figure out how to measure growth toward that goal, a measure educators and parents can understand and respect. But first, let’s agree on the goal, not focus on the trigger problem. Let’s remember we create the future...it’s what educators do.

Gawande, A. (2009). The Checklist Manifesto. New York: Picador

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