- A principal calls the director of student teaching at a local university to say student teachers will not be allowed to teach social studies if placed at his school.
- A teacher is chided for taking five minutes in the morning to ask if any of the children have something they would like to share.
- A teacher is handed a structured course of study with a strict schedule of what must be accomplished each day to make sure all the content is taught.
- Children bubble in the answers to multiple-choice questions after reading the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue.” Why does Little Boy Blue blow his horn? Why is he sleeping under the haystack? Why are the cows in the corn?
- A teacher is told to use a kitchen timer to pace children’s work time.
- A school provides after-school help for children with test scores close to passing. Children performing at all other levels are not offered the same help.
- A school allows no students with poor test scores to enroll in drama. Instead these students must enroll in an extra period of skill practice and drill.
What has happened to field trips, science experiments, math puzzles, special guests, history projects and meaningful reading and writing? What has happened to the use of the arts to motivate learning? What has happened to the professional teacher’s choice to individualize instruction, or to take more time with a concept the children don’t understand or to try a creative approach to learning?
Federal mandates and state requirements expect all schools to show average or above performance on prescribed tests. When schools fall below the mark, rather than enrich learning for children, these schools feel pressure to “cover it all.” Children’s daily practice mimics forms of testing. Hours are spent filling in blanks or circling correct answers. A teacher’s role is no longer to teach children, it is to teach prescribed curriculum and to practice testing.
The goal of raising children to a higher standard of learning is replaced with the goal of raising test scores. Children learn to recognize compound words and the two sounds of the letter s, but they don’t learn why so many people from so many places live in Fresno, or why snow in the mountains is important to the crops we grow. Children who can’t keep up are left behind. Children who are not interested or don’t care are left behind. Children who speak English as their second language are left behind. Children who have a different style of learning are left behind. Children who are ready to do something more advanced are left behind.
We are raising test scores at the expense of the souls of our children and the professionalism of our teachers. The scores mean nothing if children can read words but can’t understand what they are reading because the words are talking about an idea in science or a place in the world they have never studied. The scores mean nothing if children can write a perfect sentence but have nothing to write about. The scores mean nothing if children drop out of school because they learned all the facts but haven’t asked the important questions about life.
What is the answer? We have standards for learning. We need to constantly strive to achieve those standards with all children. But there are many ways to show learning and the improvement of our schools besides high-stakes, standardized testing. Projects, work samples, portfolios, recordings of children’s reading, classroom visits, video tapes of learning sessions and interviews can demonstrate quality teaching and learning.
Politicians want better schools. Educators want better schools. Parents and children want better schools. But in our attempt to improve schools, our teaching and learning are being controlled by tests. Even the test makers agree that tests alone should not measure a school’s effectiveness and that tests have many weaknesses and limitations.
Let’s remove the high stakes from mandated tests. Let experts who understand test scores interpret results. Use test scores as only one indicator of quality teaching and learning.
Take control of our schools from tests and return it to the people.
Karen Neufeld is director of liberal studies at Fresno Pacific University. In her position, she oversees the education of future teachers.