Modern-Day Education: A Scary New World

This is the post that I’ve been thinking about writing for some time, but it’s also the post I’ve been avoiding. The reason is simple: as a former classroom teacher and current certified tutor, the topic is a bit soul-crushing. This would be the exact opposite of the light, funny mood I usually try to express. However, I think it sheds light on why our students and teachers deserve a break.

ImageIt’s taken until my school, district, and state have removed themselves from the throes of standardized testing to even begin to think about how to write coherently on the topic. That happened last week, so the students are done with standardized testing – at least until mid-April.

Sometimes I hear a parent or some other curmudgeonly adult say something to this effect: “You know, education just isn’t the same as when I was in school.” Well, curmudgeonly adult, you’re right . It’s not the same. Whether it’s better or worse is a matter of great debate.

On the side of better, students have a myriad of resources and information at their fingertips that we curmudgeonly adults could only dream of as students. I do any necessary research online, and I honestly can’t remember how I survived before the age of the internet. I suppose it involved going into a brick-and-mortar library and looking through the card catalog. How archaic.

On the side of worse, I want to take a trip down memory lane with you. Somewhere around fifth grade, you probably had to take a standardized test. For my school, it was the ITBS. I can’t remember the number of covered subjects, but I do remember the scantron form and needing a #2 pencil. I don’t remember it being a terribly big deal, and the only use I remember it having was to identify gifted kids. So let’s pretend there was an hour of testing for reading, writing, and math (if anyone out there still does this test, feel free to correct me on the time allotment). That’s three hours.

Fifth graders today (at least in my district) are subject to twenty-one standardized tests. Depending on time accommodations, that’s somewhere between twenty-one and thirty-something hours of testing just in that year. Between twelve and eighteen of those hours are the annual state testing, which occur over the span of three weeks. The rest are computer-based standardized tests that occur and the beginning, middle, and end of year to measure student growth in reading, writing, and math.

Let that sink in for a moment. The SAT is over in about three hours and is taken by legal adults. We’re asking ten- and eleven-year-olds to complete ten times that amount of testing. Third graders take six hours’ worth of state tests and have the computerized tests in addition to those. The purpose of all this time and countless hours of preparation behind it is also a matter of great debate.

Does that sound insane to anyone else?

When I was in college, I heard an old farming idiom that went something like this: you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it.

We’ve become expert pig-weighers, so to speak. Do we know more about what students know in basically every subject? Absolutely. Over and over again. I’m sure the publishing companies that create all these tests and prep materials and happen to have contracts with states or districts have nothing to do with it. (If you didn’t read that last sentence in a sarcastic voice, read it again).

I’ve worked in education for twelve years, and I keep waiting for this testing pendulum to swing the other way. Instead, it’s only gotten worse. More tests are added every year, and students are monitored on a weekly to monthly basis if they score below benchmark.

What if all those hours of testing and test prep were used for instruction?

You know, for fattening the pig?

Teachers could return to those interactive science or social studies units that they had to cut in order to teach students how to answer a reading test question in sentences. Students wouldn’t literally lose sleep and experience physical symptoms of anxiety when facing another test, or at the opposite end, become completely apathetic towards a system that treats them solely like a number. Teachers could teach to students’ strengths, drawing in music, drama, and physical activities that strict curriculums currently don’t allow, or if they do deviate from the prescribed course of instruction, they could do so without guilt or fear of punishment from the powers above. Schools wouldn’t be punished when a parent chooses to keep their child from all this testing or when a student misses the state tests because a parent died.

What if we lived in a world where education was so fun and engaging that students chose to pursue it independent of the classroom? What if they were excited to use that myriad of resources at their fingertips?

Can you imagine?

7 thoughts on “Modern-Day Education: A Scary New World

  1. Pingback: What’s The Big Deal With Standardized Testing, Anyway? | Allison Maruska

  2. I know this post was written a year ago, but nothing has changed. If anything it’s gotten worse. Here in Mississippi, our legislature is in the process of a take-over of the state board of education – removing us from the PARCC assessment and deciding that we’re going to get rid of CCSS. Meanwhile our children have just finished their third round of MAP testing. We have one week until spring break and when we get back, go straight into PARCC PBAs. Everything we are doing is focused on preparing the students for the test. It’s killing the students and it’s killing the teachers.

    The only way for this to change is for parents to get involved. I don’t know how to get that ball rolling, though. It’s very frustrating.


  3. If you haven’t watched Diane Ravitch in action, here’s a good example. I know the video is more than an hour but once I had it going, there was no reason to watch. I put on a headset and continued working from another screen while I listened to her talk at Lehigh University.

    And if you want to read a summary of what Ravitch said at Lehigh University, you can click on the next link and read it in a few minutes instead of listening to the more than hour presentation from the video.

    On that note, I just read the news this morning that in Kansas the legislature passed a new law that will allow prosecutors to take teachers to court and put those teachers in prison for having their students read anything the prosecutors think is wrong in any way—there is no language to define what would be considered illegal reading material—that is up to each prosecutor to define.

    The prediction is that it will be signed into law by the governor because the governor of Kansas has a record that shows he hates democratic, transparent public school education with elected school board in charge of each school district, and that he is a strong supporter of fraudulent, opaque, corporate for-profit Charter schools that contribute to segregation, and he supports getting ride of public education that treats all children equally and then letting the likes of the Walton family or the Koch brothers raise and teach our children for us with no limits on what the teach our children—-and the parents will have no say or their children will be tossed out of those corporate schools. For instance, in New Orleans where there are few if any public schools left, once a child is kicked out of school, there is no choice of a public school for that child to attend because they are gone—starved of funds and closed in addition to the state giving the corporate Charters all the property that was once public property where public schools stood so the corporate Charters can sell that property if they want and make a profit off if it.

    In fact, the robbery is much worse. In about a quarter or a third of the states, public pensions—-including teachers pensions—have been turned over to hedge funds and Wall Street to manage and invest and when teachers ask where that money is being invested, the hedge fund managers tell them it isn’t any of their business. There is no transparency once public money is handed to a private, for profit corporation.


    • Wow, that Kansas situation takes scary to a whole new level! The district from which I graduated was recently in the news because students were protesting changes to history curriculum – changes that included language about “preventing material that promotes civil disobedience”. Thankfully, the protests were effective and that language was removed.
      Thanks for the video link. I’ll definitely check that out.


  4. Pingback: Teachers: For Best Results, Know Thy Students | Allison Maruska

  5. Thanks for writing this post. As a teacher for 24 years, I couldn’t agree with you more. At our school we just got finished giving the controversy ISAT Test for Illinois that is of virtually no value to the students this year (even the powers that be admit that), but next week we have to give another Benchmark Assessment. At every turn there is another standardized test of some type. When students have to take a test over actual material taught in the classroom, it’s no wonder some of them just do it to “get it done”. The pendulum has shifted so far to the other side, I’m afraid if it doesn’t start to swing back soon, it’s going to get stuck and all of us are going to be worse off for it in the future.


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