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.
It’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?