Challenging our students to do what? Test better?

Last week I was in Boston to attend a high school journalism conference.  Like, do I know a good time or what?

Boston — great bars, great restaurants — and 5,500 high school kids.

I’ve lost it.

As part of the conference is a “write off” — a competition where students follow a prompt or hear a speaker and write or design in order to win an honor that their teacher can be proud of.  After all, that’s what education has become — perform well to please the administration so they can strut around citing numbers.  Forget what’s good for the student, it’s all about the education peacocks that like to put their feathers in full bloom and brag.

I know one teacher who is quick to remind you that she’s been teaching for 35 years and, golly gee, we should kiss her ring.  Right.  And Richard Nixon was an attorney and look where that got him.

So the write offs have their specific purpose — bragging rights.  Been there, done that.  Students and advisers have no idea what the topic is going to be or who the speaker will be.  Some times they’re great and others, well, not so great.

As moderator for my specific group (news writing and editorial writing) I had the chance to see the information first. Cool.  I mean, how exciting is that?

At first glance, I probably rolled my eyes.  The speaker was from an organization called “Fair Test”.  Great, I thought, someone associated with PETA making me feel guilty that my lunch was kept in a cage and tested for steroid use.  Yawn. Been there, heard that.

But I was wrong.

The speaker was is Lisa Guisbond of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, also known as FairTest.  Based in Boston, the organization vehemently opposed the excessive amount of testing students face today.

Whoa.  This has possibilities.  Big time as a matter of fact.

As a recently retired public school teacher, one thing that curls what little hair I have left is education has become one-size-fits-all and everyone must be groomed to take the almighty standardized test.  ACT, Advanced Placement — you name it.  What ever can be done to quantify student success is worth it.

Until it comes to Fair & Open Testing.  Guisbond made it clear — quite clear — that the movement and acceleration toward more standardized testing is not doing students — from K to 12 mind you — a whole heck of a lot of good.

In fact, she said the reality is that I “concluded that one size fits all really means one size fits few.”  Yep.  A few.  But that doesn’t matter in education circles.  Guisbond asked the more than 200 students in attendance two questions:  What do you think school is for, or what do you think school should be about? What makes school worthwhile to you?

The answers were vague at best. That did not surprise Guisbond.  She told the students that ”

It’s interesting to me that, after years of asking different groups of people that question, I’ve never had anyone say they think the purpose of school is to prepare students to take standardized exams in math and reading. So it’s pretty clear that there’s a disconnect between what most people think school should be about and what our schools are measuring with high-stakes standardized tests.”

Quite simply, kids want to be in school to learn — life skills, career skills, college preparedness skills — not test taking skills.  But no, say the administrators, we know what’s best.  Sure, we take a kid who has grown up in affluent white suburbs, but him or her next to a student who just moved her from abroad, and expect them to perform on the same level.

Acculturation, a department chair once told a group of teachers, is no excuse.  All students are expected to perform the same.  Basically, one size fits all — like it or not.

The movement started during the second George Bush administration with the No Child Left Behind act.  The intent of NCLB was to get 100 percent compliance by 2014.  As if that’s going to happen. NCLB mandated that math and reading tests be given to students  in grades 3-8 once a year and once in high school.  That’s a lot of testing?

How much?  Guisbond said “I recently spoke to a principal in Boston who said that in her school, there will be required standardized testing going on for 90 out of 180 days of the school year. That’s half the year!”

So that’s how we’re educating kids — spending half their time in school taking tests.  Cool, huh?

The testing load burdens not only students, but teachers as well.  That’s because all their efforts, training and care for their students is being diminished to how well they do on standardized testing.

What about the arts and vocational courses?  Sorry, they’re not testable.  What about electives to challenge our students’ creativity?

Sorry, they’re not testable.

But the ACT?  By gosh, if you do well, we’ll put your name on a poster citing your accomplishment.  Afterall, it makes the administration looks good.

Over exaggerated, you say?

Guisbond cited another study by the folks in the twin cities that estimated that, “between kindergarten and 12th grade, St. Paul students lose about a year to test preparation and testing.”

One year.  365 Days.  8760 hours. 525,600 minutes.

A lot of time.  And now we’re looking at the “common core”.

As one friend of mine says — the result will be a lot of common students.

A lot of time for a lot of test — to please a lot of administrators.

Maybe they should spend that time thinking about what’s good for the kids.

A novel idea.





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  • Just read a fascinating book on Dunbar Americas first black public high school talk about education at its best and worst. I feel you on the testing issue its like branding without the taste test.

  • The article leaves a lot of unconcluded thoughts.

    Obviously, NCLB resulted in teaching to the test. But since teachers were basically unaccountable before any testing, and the real impetus was that federal money was being poured into rat holes, I'm not sure that the Fair and Open Test organization is offering any measuring tool, either. Some students may be in school to learn life skills or prepare for an occupation, but I'll bet that a large number are there to have a legal way to spend 7 hours a day.

    Two other thoughts I'll throw out there--
    -- If the purpose of NCLB testing is to make sure that everyone has some rudimentary understanding of English and arithmetic, it is proving that some students don't even have that. Therefore, unless you have a budding Einstein or similar dropout, testing for arts and vocations is probably meaningless if they can't read or count. Consider such occupations as to be an automobile mechanic today, one needs to be a computer scientist.

    --In the old days, those on the vocation track would go to tech high schools, apparently now called career academies. Educators frown on that kind of tracking now, and it appears that the only career some academies teach is how to get into the NBA. That may be an exaggeration, but I don't know what testing the students as welders would prove, although welders certainly can get jobs.

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