By Marty Brooks (The author would appreciate your comments and suggestions.)
Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (2001) a debate has been brewing inside the halls of state legislatures, federal and state departments of education and local school district offices about the purpose and future direction of education in the United States. Truthfully, it hasn’t been much of a debate – those who see schooling as a cacophony of common standards, prescribed programs targeted at those standards, tests that assess the extent to which those standards are being met, and accountability measures that sanction teachers and schools failing to meet the standards are clearly holding sway.
Over the years, many noted thinkers and researchers, from Kozol and Goodlad to Kohn and Zhao, have excoriated venerated practices in education, exposed the injustices and inadequacies (and, in some cases, the insanities) of schooling and suggested that the fundamental structure of the American educational system has been steadily disadvantaging many students, particularly students of color and lower socio-economic means. The insufficiencies and inefficiencies of public schooling (especially in our nation’s urban centers) have been well documented and invariably describe powerful institutional racism, substandard teaching, political indifference, public apathy, and personal suffering in school – all of which have coalesced to produce a perception of individual student, and whole system, failure that have literally screamed for school reform. It’s a compelling case.
But, in response as a nation, we have made a terrible miscalculation about what affects student learning, and we are mis-educating our students. In the pursuit of higher scores on tests, we have made the decision to sacrifice the promise of real student learning for the illusion of student achievement, and as a result a generation of students is sitting through years of mind-numbing lessons designed to prepare them to score well on these tests. It’s the wrong response.
Student learning is and must be at the core of everything we do, particularly attempts to reform education. Everything else is political white noise – it’s there, in the background (and increasingly in the foreground), but it has virtually nothing to do with our real work. The testing and accountability mania that has seductively hijacked our nation’s educational agenda actually interferes with learning and causes harm to students (Zhao, 2012).
High test scores have emerged over the last two decades as the Holy Grail of American education, particularly as international assessments, such as PISA and TIMSS, have shown American students scoring in the middle of the pack. Paradoxically, the emphasis on high scores serves to reinforce the very pretest-teach-posttest model of schooling that has led to the call for reform in the first place. It is not without irony that several of the nations many American reformers envy because they score highest on international comparisons (OECD, 2010) do not administer high stakes tests to their students and others do so only at the end of the high school years.
History tells us that whenever testing has been the engine driving educational reform, the reform has failed. And so it is today. There is no mystery about how to increase the percentages of students passing tests – identify what information the tests value, tie curriculum and instruction to the tests, stock classrooms with materials aligned with the tests, and focus classroom time on test preparation activities. Test scores will improve … but student learning won’t.
Conley, D. (2010). College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Grennon Brooks, J. & Brooks, M. (1999). In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. (2010). Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Paris, France
Pinker, S. (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York, NY: Penguin
Zhao, Y. (2012). World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin