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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ready, set, fail, standardized tests in education


By James Mason

With millions of students across California sitting down this month, No. 2 pencil in hand, to take standardized tests, policy makers must face the facts - these tests are uprooting our American education system. As a parent and educator, I was so concerned by the effects of these tests that I made this the focus of my masters project. The damages of high-stakes testing are serious and we must immediately chart a different course for school accountability and student assessment.

The push to increase test scores changes the relationship between educators and students. Students' scores, hanging like the sword of Damocles over educators' heads, have become more important than the students themselves. Schools focus on "bubble kids," those who almost passed the test, while leaving low-performing students behind, placing them inappropriately into Special Education, or holding them back in the grade before a big test.

The literature is clear: students experience stress from high-stakes testing. Massachusetts includes gloves and bags to return the tests that children have vomited on. Older students, deciding that they are not good at school, stop trying both on tests, and in class. High school exit exams, designed to force students to do better in school, do not actually improve student achievement.

Something else happens when students are treated like test scores: they drop out. Students quit because they can't pass the exit exam, because they were held back, or out of boredom. Some districts encourage students who miss a lot of school to drop out, or even kick them out, as Birmingham, Ala. did with 522 students.

The pressure to produce high test scores, despite factors they know to be beyond their control, is taking its toll on teachers, producing anxiety and stress, and driving many to leave the profession. The increased use of test-driven scripted curriculum frustrates experienced teachers, while new teachers, who don't know any better, don't learn to think on their feet. The destruction of the teaching profession does not end there: sometimes stress levels lead to suicide. After the Los Angeles Times published his low scores online, teacher Rigoberto Ruelas took his own life.

Excessive focus on test scores speaks loudly to teachers, students, and the public. What it says is: "If it isn't tested, it must not be important." Students are not tested in all subjects every year, so there is a tendency to narrow the curriculum and eliminate time spent on science, history and art, as well as reducing recess and lunch. Within subjects that are tested annually, not all topics carry the same weight on the test. This causes teaching to the test, focusing on what carries the most weight. Finally, some schools go as far as teaching with test-like multiple choice materials, which is simply teaching the test itself.

The way most standardized tests are structured encourages teachers to teach each subject separately, to break ideas up into small pieces like the test does, and to teach these bite-sized pieces of knowledge. The problem is that all three of these tendencies fly in the face of what research has shown about how people learn. This fragmented curriculum encourages memorization rather than critical thinking, denies students the opportunity to make connections, and teaches them that there is only one right answer, which comes from an authority figure.

Public education in America has always sought to teach students beyond basic skills, even beyond pure academics. We may not all agree on what the other goals are, but they usually include social skills, employability, critical thinking and civic responsibility. This American tradition of a broad and enriched education is endangered by the myopic focus on what can easily be tested.

The solution does not lie only in creating better tests. Even the best tests imaginable will have these negative effects, when high stakes are attached. This is an inevitable result of "Campbell's Law," which says that if we just use a number to judge how well people are doing, then they will do whatever it takes to "measure up." An example: if we evaluated police based on how many citations they wrote, more officers would write speeding tickets, and fewer would investigate organized crime.

The federal report, "A Nation at Risk," warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity." Its cure, more high-stakes testing, has proven worse than the disease. As schools try to produce higher and higher test scores, the foundations of education are being eroded. Tests are designed to evaluate, and the misuse of testing is steadily eroding the lives and experiences of teachers and students, as well as the quality of education.

As President Obama recently stated: "One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test."

These candid words have rung true with educators around the country, and it is time to make our government act in tune. Our children's future depends on it.

James Mason teaches math at Delta Charter School in Tracy.

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