The Common Good
September-October 2001

Will This Be on the Test?

by David Shapiro | September-October 2001

What does standardized testing have to do with education?

Virtually every teacher has told the story: There you are, winding up the day's class. A student has just made a splendid observation. Synapses are firing and hearts are opening. The air is bright and electric. Then, with seconds left, a raised hand casts an ominous shadow. "Yes, Jerome?" you say. "Will this be on the test?" he asks.

You might think that Jerome has not yet developed the confidence to engage in the adventure of learning, or that he is a joyless grind. But according to President Bush, the Senate, and ed. biz folks across the country, Jerome is right on the money.

As Europe moves away from the rigid national testing that for so long determined its students' academic and career destinies, the United States tests more and more. Even prior to the Senate's recent passage of a bill that mandates annual testing in grades three to eight and once again in high school, the United States was already administering approximately half a million different kinds of standardized tests to its children each year, and 49 states already required annual standardized testing. Testing makes such a splash here because it plays well to both melodies in our national psyche's anthem-individualism and egalitarianism.

Those who define rigor as setting the bar high enough so that a certain portion of kids are bound not to make it are drawn to annual testing and anything else swathed in the mantle of standards. "Enough of feel-good, dumb-downed curricula" is their cry. Let's determine what those third graders should know and make damn well sure we find out if they know it. If they don't, we can leave them in their (often dilapidated and overcrowded) schools for longer that same year, or leave them back. If they work hard, they should smarten up just fine, and if they don't, they give us no choice but to leave them behind permanently. Right?

Testing is also a hit among those who tend to see educational success as the right of all children. "The test can be everybody's ticket" is their mantra. If we make crystal clear what the annual third-through-eighth-grade tests will cover, and if we insist that teachers teach to them, kids will pass. And that will confirm that they're being educated well. Right? Furthermore, if research shows that students who complete advanced placement courses are significantly more likely to be admitted to colleges, let's give AP courses all around. Then everybody will do well after high school. Right?

WELL, NOT SO FAST, Jerome. Many teachers across the country have voiced serious misgivings about the effects of mandatory annual testing and its connection to student placement, teacher and administrator salaries, and school funding. Some schools are doing away with arts and music instruction to devote more time to preparing students for the tests, and teachers report that students are more anxious and less likely to take intellectual risks. Students themselves have written and spoken out against more and more of their class time spent single-mindedly teaching to these tests.

The most dangerous thing about testing is that it distracts us (is meant to distract us?) from the true educational challenges we face. We need to give our kids schools where people know them and respect them for who they are; where the work is demanding and engaging; where there's consistent discipline and a lot of laughter and affection; where no one feels like they're from the wrong side of the tracks; and where everyone buys into something bigger than themselves. We need to allocate increased resources and expertise to building moderate sized schools (with small class sizes), supporting tailored and sustained teacher development programs, assuring that kids start their days with food in their stomachs, and creating safe and equitable school environments. We need to be serious.

It's a tough test, and it's for us, not the children.

David Shapiro, head of Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C., taught English for 30 years in the United States, Switzerland, and Taiwan. He reports (with embarrassment) that he still remembers his SAT verbal and math scores.

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