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While many debates on whether or not standardized testing should be a part of the 2020-2021 school year, I (and many other educators) are still wondering why it exists at all. Don’t get me wrong, I see value in data and tracking student progress. However, I absolutely do not see value in billion-dollar testing companies, developmentally inappropriate expectations, excessive testing, and tying teacher performance or pay to score results.
We have heard plenty about how standardized testing hurts our most vulnerable students, and that alone is a major problem. But I also want to address the other unintended consequences of standardized testing: the decimation of learning. When we implement this culture of testing, we do more than lose a few instructional days in the spring. We lose so much more:
“Non-Essential” Subjects and Enrichment
When I was in elementary school, we did tons of typing lessons, learned computer skills, went to music class, choir, physical education, and tons of other activities for about half of our day. Now, there is such an emphasis on testing and therefore the core classes, that kids sometimes only have Physical Education (P.E.) once a week or see their music teacher for a short amount of time, assuming these programs haven’t been cut altogether.
The problem is the skills and enrichment students gain from these classes is critical. PE helps students stay active and maintain healthy lifestyles. Music and choir can expose students to the Arts and help them learn how to read music. Computer skills like typing, designing presentations or flyers, utilizing email, and creating a blog are useful for students’ academic, personal, and professional lives. Imagine if teachers also had time to teach life skills like financial literacy or SEL without having to perfectly tailor it to their restrictive standards. But there is no time for the “non-essentials” and we see our students paying for it now during remote learning when they don’t know how to submit an assignment or write professional emails.
The Disappearance of Social Studies (and Sometimes Science)
As more emphasis has been placed on Math and ELA classes, other required subjects like science and especially social studies have suffered greatly. Science has slowly been saved by the push for STEM education, but at elementary levels, it is still often an afterthought due to not always being a tested subject. While Math and ELA have large chunks of time reserved during the school day, social studies may be as little as 15 minutes, and sometimes isn’t even taught daily.
It goes without saying that this is a major disservice to students. Social studies skills are necessary for a functioning society - we need people to critically think, analyze the world around them, and understand the past in order to plan for the future. Some schools even make social studies into another version of ELA. Gone are the days of cool history movies, coloring maps, and fun storytelling - now the emphasis is on DBQ essays where students are once again writing. Some kids are writing for most of the day when it is exhausting and developmentally inappropriate.When we relegate social studies to an afterthought, we allow students to be blissfully ignorant. This will not bode well for our society in the future. Click To Tweet
Relationships and Fun in the Classroom
The most important part of teaching is building positive, meaningful relationships with students. To do so, teachers might do ice breakers, team building activities, or simply talk to their students and get to know them. When there is immense pressure to teach to a test and an emphasis on “time on task,” teachers are left with limited options for building relationships with students, especially after the first week of school. Not to mention for departmentalized teachers, they do not see their students for extended times and have too much to cover to really get to know them. Furthermore, the fun of learning is lost when we define that “on task” time as compliant students.
We have pushed away any opportunity to love or be excited about learning. We do not learn for the sake of it anymore, we do it so we can take a test or meet benchmarks. If a really great science activity doesn’t fit nicely with the outdated standards, then it isn’t going to get taught. If a teacher has a cool idea for a writing prompt but isn’t sure their admin will take their justification for it seriously, they will likely not use it despite the impact it could have.
Tailored, Differentiated, and Remediated Curriculum
This leads me to my next point: every classroom and set of kids is unique. Great teachers know this and teach to their specific students. If their group is low, they may work on remediation. If they have a mixed group, they will have to employ more differentiation strategies to keep everyone on track and engaged. And if the group has specific interests or backgrounds, the teacher will tailor the curriculum to be the best it can be for that group.
But this isn’t how education works anymore. There is a test at the end of the year and the kids need to do well on it. If there is a mixed group, the teacher is forced to focus their energy on the kids in the middle while the highest and lowest are forgotten. If the group is really low, that teacher is expected to work miracles. If the teacher wants to tailor the content to their specific students, there will be questions and pushback for deviating from the curriculum the test company sold to the school.
With this, we also see students rushed through the material. Never mind if half the class failed last week's quiz, there is too much to cover before test day to reteach. While some kids will bounce back and it won’t make too much of a difference in their schooling, others will have missed foundational concepts that will plague them for years to come.
Take Algebra I for example - if a chunk of students never fully understand factoring, what happens when they get to Algebra II or even Pre-Calculus? The teacher has too much content to cover to help those students who can’t grasp the basic concepts, and they are left behind again. While we have No Child Left Behind to thank for excessive testing, we also have it to thank for students being left behind over and over again in their academic careers. The only difference is them failing or needing to be held back is now seen as a teacher failure when they were left with no choice.
When the tests are standardized, unfortunately, the curriculum often is too. Districts spend millions of dollars on materials from the wealthy testing companies while still paying teachers ridiculously low wages. Those materials are determined by politicians and content creators who often have little if any education experience. Many teachers are forced to use scripted lessons or the exact same materials as their fellow teachers. Others may have a little more wiggle room but be expected to follow strict timelines or be in sync with the other teachers in their department who teach completely different kids. There is no room for creativity, and certainly no autonomy.Teachers are not robots, and neither are our students. Click To Tweet
Teachers are not robots, and neither are our students. Not everyone can realistically teach exactly the same and that should never be the expectation. Teaching is a craft; it is something you personally invest your heart and soul into every time you get in front of students. When you force teachers to follow narrow guidelines, you push the best ones out of the profession altogether. Furthermore, the composition of our classes varies greatly, and it is unfair and unrealistic to expect all students in the same grade to progress through a subject at the exact same pace. In that model, no learning is taking place, it is simply regurgitation and many falling through the cracks.
Student Creativity, Diversity, and Voices
As stated in the introduction, we know standardized testing is unfair and inequitable for students who are BIPOC, low income, have test anxiety, or a million other factors. To dive further into that, when we have the testing pressure, we miss out on what makes our students special. Their creativity is hampered unless it magically fits into the restrictive standards. Their diversity is silenced because standardized means cookie cutter and does not call for frosting or sprinkles. Our students' backgrounds and voices do not truly matter in a system that expects them all to get the same exact answers regardless of their geographic region, family composition, exposure to trauma or life experiences, language barriers, upbringing, or identification.
The result is students hate reading because they cannot read the books they are interested in. They hate writing because their creative stories are not part of the curriculum, and they are forced to only write with strict and outdated rules. Those who are artistically inclined are told they will never make money in that career and that there is no time for it in class, rather than encouraged and connected with resources to get even better. Those with powerful stories never have the chance to share them and as Maya Angelou said, “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Our kids deserve better.
Last but not least, if we want to pretend that these tests could give us useful data, the application has been all wrong. We teach kids all year, give them a test in the spring, are lame ducks for the last few weeks of school, and then by the time the results are in they have a new teacher for the new school year. The previous teacher cannot remediate gaps in understanding, yet they are accountable for those scores.
If testing were to actually help us then it would need to be diagnostic: show me what my kids don’t know so I can get them there. Show me while I have ample time to work with them and allow them to grow. Most importantly, don’t tie my students' scores to my pay or evaluations, because that does not make me a better teacher. Teachers cannot control a student's past trauma or home life, or if their various physical and emotional needs are being met. High stakes testing tells us nothing more than identifying the good test-takers.
It is no coincidence that our subject area shortages are always tested subjects. We need reform. I hope that as we progress through this pandemic-filled school year, states will back down on requiring standardized testing. But I really hope that in doing so, we finally let go of them altogether.