Month: July 2011

IsTesting Killing Public Education?

Why Testing is Killing Education

It is now taken for granted by political policy makers that schools, administrators, and teachers must be held accountable. For most who consider educational reform that is a non debatable given. Of course, those who favor educational reform beg an interesting question- Do American schools need reforming?

The taken-for-granted answer to that question is, Yes, because our test scores are lower than those of other countries. Notice the circular reasoning. Do our schools need reforming? Yes. How do we know? Because our students score lower on standardized tests than students of many other countries. How shall we reform our schools? By demanding more accountability on the part of teachers and administrators. How will be hold them accountable? By doing more of what we are already doing, testing.

This whole game has been going on for close to thirty years (see the Nation at Risk Report ),  but no one seems concerned about the irrationality involved.

The “Measurements” of Accountability

Although policymakers give lip service to the idea that there should be multiple measures to determine accountability, the fact is student achievement, as determined by standardized test results, is all that really counts. In most cases, these standardized tests consist of multiple-choice questions assessing discrete facts. There is really no way to test for critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, writing or reading skills beyond the most rudimentary. But, as an old saying goes, “what counts is what can be counted.”

The Irony of Accountability

Thus, the one thing that is measured by standardized tests is one thing that contemporary education ought to be least concerned about. Just think about it for a moment. When you want to know a specific fact, what do you do? If you are like me, you “Google”it.
In the modern technological age, there is simply no point in memorizing the factual information that is readily available to anyone who has access to the Internet. The really problem in this age of “information glut” is what to do with the vast amount of facts we have at hand. A computer has already shown that it can beat any human “expert” at the quiz show, Jeopardy. That same computer could easily “ace” the student achievement tests that we use to measure whether or not our students are “educated”.
This point leads us to the real question- What does it mean to be “educated”, and what should schools be about?

What Then, Should Schooling Be About?

If the purpose of schooling is not to transmit a body of factual knowledge to a passive group of young people who are then required to memorize the knowledge and regurgitated on a standardized test, what might the purpose of schooling be? As John Dewey told us over a century ago, schools ought to be two things: 1) having “educative” experiences, and 2) learning how to participate in a democratic community. We have forgotten what both of those terms mean. We confuse learning facts with being educated and we confuse knowing facts about democracy and voting with participating in a democracy.

Educative Experiences

What are Educative Experiences?

  • The opportunity for educative experience arises from an authentic problem or question.
  • The problem or question must be one that a student is interested in and finds engaging.
  • The problem should emerge from the student’s prior knowledge and experience.

The teacher’s job is twofold: provide the student with the background and information necessary to solve the problem; and provide the student with the critical thinking skills necessary to solve the problem.

Schools as Participatory Democracies

This is the most radical of Dewey’s ideas about education. Dewey believed that a critical role for American education was to provide a public space where young people could understand democracy by practicing it. For Dewey, a participatory democracy is one where those who are impacted by a decision have a role in making that decision. Not only are such experiences rare in today’s schools, there is no interest in assessing whether they take place or not.

Follow the Money

If you ask the question, “Whose interests are being served?” by the testing reform agenda’s the answer in obvious. It is not the students, their parents, or teachers and administrators interested in educating our children. Business interests are being served. Business and industry are not concerned with schools emphasizing citizenship education. They want a compliant work force, not one interested in participating in decision-making. Politicians advocating educational “reform” know who they are accountable to and who pays for their campaigns. This is true nationally as well as here in Idaho.