Tuesday, May 11, 2010

For the Sake of Our Society, for the Sake of Our Kids: It's Time to End Standardized and High-Stakes Testing

I've heard from a lot of people (most of whom responded directly on Facebook) regarding my family's recent experiences with public school evaluations and standardized tests. In addition, I've been reading piles of books about homeschooling, peppered with narratives of families who chose to homeschool after the evaluation and standardized teaching culture affected their kids in gut-wrenching ways from the loss of a smile, to anxiety-driven insomnia, to very young children forced to take Ritalin to be allowed in school.

The stories that have come out -- powerful, personal, some heartbreaking -- leave me wondering why on earth we put up with such a ridiculous, demoralizing, wasteful, and finally counter-productive system. There's only one answer, and I'm afraid it's unacceptable. We put up with it because we're too tired, too overworked, the top-heavy bureaucracy of the education system is just too immovably pigheaded, and so we give up and put our energies into the one thing that counts: navigating the system to ensure the mental and emotional and academic welfare of our own children, because that's the only place we have an impact.

Not that there's anything wrong with caring for our children first. But if we can't change a system we know is wrong, what kind of society are we leaving for them, in the end?

In a recent post on standardized tests (TEKS and TAAS), I mentioned the complaints of college professors that their students lack the ability to think independently: "These students, they moan, are always wanting to know 'what the teacher is looking for' in a paper. In other words, they’re so used to being taught to the test, that it comes naturally to them to write to the teacher."

That's aside from the worried, stressed-out reality many kids are living in, whether it's in response to high-stakes high school graduation testing or twice-weekly spelling drills to prepare 2nd graders for high-pressure standardized tests. The book Guerilla Learning (by Amy Silver and Grace Llewellyn) has an excellent chapter on the history of standardized tests, and how they have gained prominence in our schools. It has absolutely nothing to do with our children's education, and everything to do with bureaucracy's need to formulate colossal busywork rather than doing anything real to improve the quality of education. Numerous studies have shown that standardized testing is self-referential -- while test scores might improve, education and learning do not. And, as one mother friend said, "I don't think you can standardize results for a young child. They can do great one day and terrible the next purely based on whether or not they had a good nap or ate enough lunch."

The problem is, this busywork, and the industry that now makes millions off of it, is not only denying our kids real learning opportunities, but is actually causing them lasting harm.

What sort of humans are we creating, in the pursuit of this hyper-testing culture? Nervous young creatures driven by anxiety and unable to think for themselves or engage in imagination because they are so used to being judged by an arbitrary metric that they don’t know how to function without it. No proponents of standardized testing answer this question: What happens when the testing stops? What happens to the kids we’ve trained when we throw them into the world and suddenly say, “Now think and do for yourselves, even though we haven’t allowed to do so for 18 years, and you have no idea of what it means to succeed or fail without a test score returned to you”?

Where did we go so wrong?

Our society is never going to be competitive in math or engineering, or ingenuity or philosophy or literature or justice, or in fact anything at all if the way we measure success keeps being driven by standardized tests. Because, as anyone with an ounce of sense knows by this time, the reliance on tests means that the tests are all we teach. And what use are the tests in life? Absolutely none.

So if a lesson is in no way useful in real life, why is the school teaching it? Your tax dollars at work, spinning out reams of pointless paperwork designed to make your children nervous, fearful, and more prone to need anxiety medication as they grow. Is that what we want? A nation of anxious, sleep-deprived people who are unable to make decisions or solve problems without hanging on to a life raft of a standardized metric, without receiving a score that tells them whether they passed or failed?

If you want a nation of people who are dependent on the rest of the world for solving problems and inventing new technologies, that’s a surefire way to do it—not to mention a nation of people easily led by any dogma, no matter how ignorant or narrow-minded, that happens to strike a chord with them. Ignorance and anxiety, as history has taught us countless times, is an explosive mix. This is not how humanity makes progress.

In the case of students with special needs, the use of evaluations and tests seems counter-intuitive. Do the evaluations actually do much to identify those needs and how to meet them? It’s what the tests are supposedly designed for, but do they succeed?

As with any complex problem that needs solving, the answer is no. What the evaluations do is allow providers to apply easily identifiable labels to children without taking into account each child’s personality, quirks, tendencies, or, indeed, actual needs.

I realize this difficulty is hard to overcome. No one but the parent and perhaps future teachers truly has the time to get to know the child and work with who they are. They only have the time to work with a broad outline—those labels—of what this human might be.

While the system might for the most part do little harm and sometimes quite a bit of good, there are two reasons it is hopelessly flawed. One is that in some cases it can do harm. Think of the child who really doesn’t fit the mold, and is forced to, or children who are under the care of an incompetent or uncaring provider.

The second is that providers and parents could accomplish the same tasks without the use of evaluations. Any parent even mildly observant can tell the provider enough about their child to make the evaluation redundant (yes, there are crappy parents; I have yet to see any real evidence that standardized evaluations make up for that). And any provider worth their salt can easily discover all they need to know about how to begin working with a child within one or two sessions of observation and play.

If the purpose of these systems is to simply standardize people, they succeed, at the expense of humanity. If the intention is to help children become their best selves, how widely they miss the mark. How will they, and we, pay for that mistake in the future?


jessiebell said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I simply don't understand why people are so afraid to question these things.

Antonia Malchik said...

I would guess it's more weariness and acceptance than fear. People have been trying to change education for decades, and the only result seems to be that it gets taken further along this ridiculous path, all to the tune of "holding teachers and schools accountable." The sad thing is, a lot of it really is driven by parents.