The Common Good
September-October 2012

Test Anxiety

by Jan Resseger | September-October 2012

How the out-of-control emphasis on high-stakes testing jeopardizes school reform.

THE SO-CALLED “accountability movement” has been a bipartisan movement; virtually no one is proposing that we cut back on standardized tests. They’ve come to dominate school for children and teachers, and they’ve narrowed the curriculum. They’ve caused people to feel pressure to cheat. While standardized tests have been emphasized less in schools where children are highly affluent—those children still get an enriched curriculum—children in schools that are poor get a heavily test-prep curriculum that’s not very enticing.

At a higher level, standardized tests are at the core of the test-and-punish philosophy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). All the punishments are based on test scores; whether it’s identifying failing schools and closing them if their scores are too low or giving teachers poor evaluations, and maybe firing them, based on student test scores—or whether it’s the very draconian ways of dealing with the bottom 5 percent of schools in the NCLB waivers and Race to the Top grants, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan proposes.

High-stakes testing is at the core of what’s wrong with where we’re headed. Because the stakes are so high, they’ve caused a narrowing of the curriculum. The tests required for NCLB are basic reading and math. They don’t test social studies or the arts. Because the scores matter so much, they’re driving policy all around it.

We know that student tests aren’t designed to evaluate their teachers. Teaching is a hugely complicated endeavor of connection between students and teachers, and test scores may not reflect what’s happening there and the benefits.

There are lots of ways to evaluate teachers—professional principals should be able to evaluate the teachers under them as professionals. We’ve come to trust numbers and data rather than professional expertise. That’s nuts. It’s a whole culture that’s focused on data processing as if that can measure all our connections with each other. The assumption seemed to be that all teachers are lazy and not trying very hard and not holding high enough expectations, so if we pressure them enough, they’ll get better. That’s the assumption—that all these other factors that we know affect student achievement don’t matter.

It’s a totally arbitrary process that we’ve gotten ourselves into. This very artificial, mechanical approach doesn’t fit with our understanding of a child, created in the image of God, who has potential that needs to be realized and nurtured.

Jan Resseger is the minister for public education and witness with the national Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

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