People may assume that ESSA reduces the burden of testing, but it will be up to each state to decide whether to continue punitive accountability systems that lead to test-centric instruction unsupported by research.
Consider the hallmark reaction of an education researcher who walks into a classroom of a public school targeted as at risk of failing: “Why aren’t they using best practices? Where is the research?” These refrains express the disquieting, intransigent nature of the research-to-practice gap in schools that arguably need quality instruction the most. As a research zealot myself, when I entered my own classroom I was convinced that I would deliver only research-based instruction.
Months into teaching, however, I was aghast to find my own classroom in a Title I school a perfect archetype of research-deprived practice. Despite my firmly held beliefs, I was designing instruction with almost no consideration of best practices, and the few research-based guides and materials I did have sat on a shelf in the corner, covered in dust and collecting cobwebs. Yet in my new world, this form of instruction made perfect, nauseating sense.
When schools and teachers are evaluated under punitive accountability systems, such as the No Child Left Behind system we knew so well, fearful schools invariably resort to test prep as the main (and often only) form of so-called “teaching.” Media coverage of ESSA praises the law’s potential for reducing the burden of high-stakes testing. Yet the law returns to states the freedom to design their own accountability systems, and many will be tempted to continue the misguided use of punitive measures that has resulted in the test-preparation culture dominating our children’s learning.
To clarify: I don’t mean that some schools are simply replacing a portion of regular instruction with a large helping of test preparation. As an increasing number of researchers are pointing out, quality teaching in many high-poverty schools is being wiped out altogether. In focusing on multiple-choice strategies for students most likely to pass, schools whose students need quality instruction the most leave research-based pedagogy behind. In my own classroom, the research-based instructional materials lay dusty on the shelf while standardized, multiple choice, test-preparation packets constantly filled my hands.
This response to testing may seem counterintuitive. Well-designed standards for abstract and higher-order thinking in theory would create incentives for schools to use more research-based practices to promote these elusive skills in children. But when educators are at risk of being fired based on test scores, they are pressured to respond to subpar scores with quick fixes. As a result, they tend to defer to testing strategies that replace analytic and metacognitive skills with memorized procedures for answering particular types of multiple-choice format questions. Within punitive systems, the potential for a tiny score increase in the short term outweighs the potential for substantial improvement in the long term through quality instruction. And teachers who resist by essentially replacing test preparation with quality teaching in secret are at risk of harsh retaliation by administrators.
Though the revised ESEA maintains the option for states to perpetuate test-centric instruction, it also provides the option for states to dismantle these systems, keeping testing at a minimum for the purposes of diagnostics and intervention. In short, the recent passage of the ESSA is a momentous opportunity. For educators and researchers who understand that educating children requires professional practice guided by research and relationships, now is the time to make our voices heard. In doing so, researchers may be able to avoid finding their own work in an unfortunate state: dusty.
Sarah Cashdollar is a doctoral student and Institute of Educational Sciences fellow at the University of Chicago, where she studies urban education in the department of comparative human development. Previously, she taught 4th grade for two years in Dallas.
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