So today (I’m writing on Monday) I was supposed to do a 9:00 AM test call for an upcoming video conference with some seventh graders. Lo and behold, at 8:30 AM, my screen lights up and a harried-looking tech person appears amidst stacks of boxes. “Sorry,” she says, “but we have standardized tests all day long today so I’m in a hurry.” Since our upcoming video conference is based on a book I wrote about the Revolutionary War, I ask her if the students have studied that period yet. “Not much,” she says. “All we do in this state is test, test, test, so the kids don’t learn a thing.”
Hmmmm….I think she was in such a hurry that she was accidentally thinking out loud in front of a total stranger. But she’s definitely not alone. I hear this same complaint from teachers all the time when I visit schools.
Ever since the No Child Left Behind Act first reared its head in 2002, kids in have had to take tons of standardized tests, and if they don’t do well, their schools pay the piper. They stand to lose federal funding and free tutoring and worse. These tests cover a very narrow part of the curriculum, but they supposedly show whether kids are learning or not, whether their teachers are any good, whether students have to take even more mind-numbing skill-and-drill classes in summer school, and whether they will stay awake long enough to pass to the next grade. Cheating is common—even some teachers and principals cheat by upping the test scores because teachers and principals can get fired or get a fat raise depending upon the results. Kids are bored to death or stress out over these tests. And nobody is having any fun.
The worst part is that so much invaluable class time is spent teaching to the tests at the expense of every single thing that can get kids excited about learning. Who wants to sit in a chair all day long and study from some dry-as-dust standardized test prep book just to keep their school out of trouble? And as updated more “interesting” tests get progressively harder, even more test prep is in the works.
Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen, there are better ways to teach and there are better ways to learn. Why would anyone want to give up creative hands-on activities or ignore great music and art and foreign languages and amazing stories from history just so that they can mark the right box on a test form? Who want to cut out class trips, whether they’re to the school library (to find some great nonfiction books, of course) or to some outstanding museums or to the great outdoors? What is happening to young peoples’ health when physical education and even recess give way to studying for the tests? What if a class wants to explore a certain topic in depth? In many schools, plenty of such worthwhile and beloved activities are on the chopping block.
Even the best teachers have trouble raising test scores under certain conditions. In some places kids can come to school hungry. Some neighborhoods are like revolving doors where students come and go all the time. Plenty of parents are overworked or jobless or have other problems that keep them from getting involved with their kids’ education in any way. If students have recently moved here from foreign countries and are not fluent in English, they will fare poorly on the tests no matter how smart they are. But the tests reflect none of this. They don’t show a thing about individual student progress or whether kids can think creatively or whether they have good critical thinking skills or whether they love to learn.
But at least someone is thinking creatively out there. I loved this article entitled Eighth grader designs standardized test that slams standardized tests. Its your homework, so of course you have to read it.