A Student, Two Teachers and the Limits of Test-Based Education
Here’s a piece by a Massachusetts student, discussing her education's gradual erosion as test-based practices made their way through that state's school system. It’s a painful reminder of what education can look like when we’re not focused on the next bubble sheet.
The student also offers a perspective on a path forward. She writes, “The best, most interesting, and most intellectually challenging classes I took in high school were not the high level AP classes, which challenge mainly through the sheer amount of information, but the senior classes that teachers had been given the freedom to design themselves, with no MCAS or AP test writers peeping over their shoulders.” Great educators doing what’s best for students is incompatible with a test-based education.
So what is it about test-based schooling that quashes teachers’ ability to do what they do best? It’s not just the tests. They’re the starting point, but they remain simply one imperfect source of data. The real damage comes with the creation of a school climate that values the tests above and beyond any reasonable contribution they can make.
A ten-year New York City schools veteran recently called that climate out. Laurel Sturt started teaching at age 46, and was part of the Teaching Fellows alternative licensure program. When asked about her school climate in the No Child Left Behind era, she says, “I saw a lot of problems with all the testing, with all the slogans everywhere, as if you were in North Korea or something.... I resented the fact that we were test-prepping them all the time and we couldn’t give them a rich, authentic education.”
Contrast that with the Massachusetts student’s experience before the testing climate set in: “As young children, we spent time interviewing and talking to our fellow students about our varying countries and cultures, as well as interviewing and getting to know our custodians, principals, secretaries, and cafeteria workers. As older kids, we had many long class discussions about issues such as identity, racism, sexism, and what ‘America’ and ‘American’ mean and have meant throughout history.”
There’s a stark difference between that sort of curriculum and the one imposed on a Delaware teacher who recently protested the script handed to her by administration. She was explicitly told to teach the prepackaged curriculum word-for-word. It’s a story that will be familiar to many Minnesota teachers. Here’s an educator who, as she puts it, has “seen learning disabled, non-readers become college graduates; non-writers grow to be valedictorians; reluctant readers become bookworms.” Down to her bones, she believes in students’ innate ability to succeed. However, her freedom to facilitate that success has been hampered by the inflexible script she is forced to read to her students.
Again, to keep ourselves grounded in what’s possible, let’s revisit the Massachusetts student’s recollections of her middle school years. Of a teacher-designed Humanities class merging English and history, she writes, “My teachers and the curriculum they had designed challenged us to develop more complex thoughts and then helped us build up the capacity to express them, whether through talking, writing, or acting.” That sort of teaching is increasingly repressed by one-size-fits-all curricula. Those curricula are sold to districts based on their purported ability to increase test scores and their alignment with standards.
I distinguish between data-informed teaching and a test-based education. These are not synonyms, though they may look like it at first. Data-informed teaching takes data from a range of sources -- real-time checks for understanding, teacher-designed formative and summative assessments, standardized tests, qualitative data gleaned from relationships with students, and so on -- and constructs information from it. That information is then used to modify teaching to meet students’ needs.
This is what drove the Delaware teacher before the scripts were passed out. As she puts it, “[M]y job as a teacher was to discover each child’s pathway to learning and help them to embark on that path. My calling was to meet the needs of the child.” Call me crazy, but that sounds like a good teaching mindset to me.
Test-based education is different. This is education that starts with a single data source and reconstructs schools to focus obsessively on that one source. It’s unhealthy, and it narrows the scope of “education” in a way that’s disrespectful to students, families, and teachers.
Despite many good intentions, we have wound up with a school system that is increasingly test-based rather than data-informed. We are wasting students’ time and enthusiasm, teachers’ abilities, and our schools’ potential. The hope that increased attention to outcomes would translate into an instructional renaissance has gone unfulfilled in too many schools.
We don’t need to eliminate tests or data to improve our schools from their beleaguered state. We do need to show students we value them for more than their test scores and per pupil funding allocations. We need to unchain our teachers with the capacity to do more. If we don’t, we’ll continue to see the dreams of idealist elites twist into a lousy education for too many students.