The September 18th issue of Education Week carried a front page article about the brewing controversy over testing in California where the state has moved to suspend most of its accountability testing for one year. The plan drew strong words and threats from Secretary Arne Duncan stating that to let an entire school year pass for millions of children without standardized testing was unacceptable. He went on to threaten withholding California’s federal entitlements. Really Mr. Secretary?
Several years ago a movie entitled Death Takes a Holiday explored the cultural, spiritual and economic impact of the elimination of death on society. The short term consequences were not so bad but eventually death, an integral part of the cycle of life became a necessary evil for the societies survival.
Maybe a moratorium on standardized testing (which is not as integral a part of learning) wouldn’t be so bad either for the short term as California has proposed. Here are a few of the benefits that immediately come to mind:
• More time for quality instruction focused on what is being taught
• Less time spent on test prep
• More attention to the development of individual student skills
• Less time being spent on rote learning.
• More creative teaching and student engagement
• Less disaffected students and teachers
• More attention to student growth over time
• Less emphasis on ranking schools, students and their teachers
• More assessments designed by educators
• Less assessments designed by proprietary test preparation companies.
While there is no doubt that the Secretary’s concerns for accountability and transparency would eventually need to be addressed, what would be the harm of taking a pause and ensuring that we are getting things right. Teaching to the test is terribly important only if we are sure that what we are testing is important.
For decades schools relied on testing that was locally developed and complemented with the professional judgments of teachers who intimately knew their students strengths and weaknesses. Even today teacher opinion is more valued by parents concerned about their students’ performance than the statistics resulting from most standardized tests.
If standardized testing is such an essential part of the educational process why has the decline of our schools correlated to our increasing reliance on standardized testing as the measure of a school’s success? They simply confirm what we already know. Some schools are doing well and others are doing poorly. Our preoccupation with testing steals time, money, energy and focus from what we really need to do in order to improve.
The role of standardized testing has taken on an importance beyond its intended purpose and its value and to have the Secretary of Education pretend that it hasn’t is both disappointing and worrisome.
Maybe both standardized testing and you, Mr. Secretary should both take a holiday and let real educators get back to work.