Dispatch from the Front

Testing….123 testing….

The Washington Post recently reprinted an article originally written for Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors. It was a warning from a recently retired high school government teacher to college professors who would soon face classrooms filled with the products of reform efforts focused on high-stakes testing.

The article, while lengthy, is worth reading in its entirety. The author–a highly regarded teacher and scholar of education–made a number of observations that should be taken seriously by legislators (most of whom have no background in teaching) intent upon “improving” public education. A few of the high (or low) points:

In many cases, students would arrive in our high school without having had meaningful social studies instruction, because even in states that tested social studies or science, the tests did not count for “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift.

Further, most of the tests being used consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure. Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education….

The structure of testing has led to students arriving at our school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge in social studies, but the problem is not limited to this field. Students often do not get exposure to art or music or other nontested subjects. In high-need schools, resources not directly related to testing are eliminated: at the time of the teachers’ strike last fall, 160 Chicago public schools had no libraries. Class sizes exceeded forty students—in elementary school.

I have posted many times about the deficits I see in civic literacy–especially knowledge of American government and history. At the Center for Civic Literacy, one of our first inquiries was into the reasons for that deficit; after all, most schools have government or civics courses, and most states have standards including such content. What we found was that the required tests did not include that material, and that teachers’ time and effort was devoted primarily to subjects that would be tested.

As for the written word…my undergraduate students are abysmal. That, I must admit, is nothing new, but neither is it improving. Grammar, syntax, punctuation, word choice, organization….often, my class is their first introduction to those terms and concepts. I was a high school English teacher in a former life, and one thing I know: the only way to teach written communication skills is to have students write. A lot.

It’s ironic that the people who focus on job training to the exclusion of education, who thus favor ignoring “frills” like English literature and the humanities, fail to recognize that the ability to communicate clearly is an essential job skill. (I would argue it is an essential life skill.)

When a student tells me “I know what I mean, I just can’t say it,” my immediate reaction is “Then you don’t know what you mean.” If you can’t express it, you don’t really know it. That is certainly the reaction students can expect from their eventual employers.

There is copious research supporting the value of art and music education–and not just for the sake of creating well-rounded human beings. Art and music instruction have been shown to increase student performance in STEM and similar subjects near and dear to job trainers’ hearts.

And don’t get me started on the numerous important characteristics that tests can’t measure.


  1. Thanks Prof K. If they need more money to better educate, they can extract lots of money from the Jock Strap and Whistle departments. Those are a total waste. Total.

  2. What does Patmcc mean by “Jock Strap and Whistle departments”?
    Could be “Sports and Music” both of which and more are essential for well-rounded primary schooling. There seems to be little limit to the learning capacity of the very young. Be sure to provide the money for these programs from parents AND from the community.
    Or, lay them down in front of the TV and pray.

  3. “Back in the day..”; by that I mean when I was in elementary school in the 1940’s, every assignment we turned in had to contain proper spelling, grammar and basic writing format (in cursive, of course). Even math papers could not be turned in with erasures and sloppily formed problems and answers. These requirements continued at the high school level.

    In the mid-1970’s; yes, that long ago, my son asked me to read his homework essay on China before he handed it in (5th grade, I think). It contained misspellings, erasures sometimes leaving small holes, lack of punctuation, no paragraphs, poor sentence structure, few capitalized names or sentence beginnings. I told him he had to redo the paper in correct form; the teacher would not accept such messy incorrect work. He said the teacher didn’t care about those things as long as he had the correct facts about China. Thinking I was teaching him a lesson, I let him hand in his paper! He brought it home with a good grade. I learned a lesson about the public school system and teaching methods.

    At the same time in the same school; his math teacher informed all parents she would not be teaching the “new math” so popular at that time. (Remember those bundles of rods?) Her reason was that she wanted her students to be able to add and subtract to figure their checkbooks when grown. This was an insightful educator. Have you seen the latest version of “new math”? Try to add up your budget using that system.

    My son and the four black children of his caregiver (and my best friend) were being bused from 38th Street and Coliseum Avenue to 36th Street near Post Road…not for racial balance of course. His was the only white face on that bus; the black woman driver terrified him with insults and screaming orders at him, the other children on the bus backed him up once his caregiver and I reported the problem and they had a new driver. The daughter of his caregiver who was the same age and in his class made lower grades than he received on all work. Something that her mother and I questioned as we checked their work. Their test grades however were equal at the end of the year. The teachers did not do my son any favors by giving him passing grades rather than teaching him; his writing habits and spelling are still severely lacking. In this case; the test results showed the basic intelligence levels of these two students contrary to the teacher’s racial bias and personal grading system. My comments are not supportive of the value of testing or the way it was done but…it did highlight a problem with teaching that long ago. By the way; both kids scored high on the tests;-)

    The problems with our local public schools have been escalating for decades; sending near illiterate students on to high schools which send them on to colleges…unless they drop out of school and never learn to use their potential or know what their potential might be. The teaching quality of our educators at all levels does need to be evaluated; it does reflect in student’s learning process but cannot be used to blame teachers when some students do not learn due to the teaching process used today in the education system – including charter schools and the voucher system. We must include home situations in these evaluations.

    Unless and until we take politics and politicians out of the education system; these problems will remain, will escalate and will result in future leaders who cannot lead and their followers who continue to support their blathering rants; “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Locally we have the Pence/Ritz situation as a prime example of politician vs. an educated elected official battling to lead our education system. And we watch these results today in the current GOP presidential candidate battle with mob scenes at Trump rallies. Trade schools are vital to this country but all students must be educated to the full extent of their capabilities; those who qualify and can avail themselves of higher education must be allowed to do so. Student loan levels are a major block; consider the fact that the majority of today’s students are supported by parents the education system failed earlier. It is a continuing cycle due in part to those who do not understand that taking public education tax dollars from public schools will not improve the public education system. It is basic math; but they are using some unnamed political “new math” to support private schools while complaining about conditions in public schools while causing these conditions to deteriorate.

  4. Can you imagine what our citizens will be like when they hit adulthood after years of HOME SCHOOLING? I take education very seriously and for those couples that determine their children should stay home and be home schooled makes me wonder about our future.

  5. As a part-time educator at the university level, I’ve seen a number of undergraduate students whose writing skills are indeed abysmal. I’ve also had the pleasure of having some incredibly talented communicators in both the spoken and written word.

    When it comes to student athletes, it all begins with the culture of the school in question. At Notre Dame, there is a very active department that keeps tabs on student athletes (and not just in the major money-making sports) in terms of their academic performance. When I’ve had student athletes who were not putting in much effort, a quick phone call or email to the office often had a positive effect. Some schools want their athletes to succeed in the classroom; others want them to succeed only on the field. Some coaches insist that players actually attend class and do well (Bob Knight was well known for this at IU). Some coaches simply see their programs as farm teams for the NFL.

    Regardless, those of us in the classrooms must continue to push students forward. That’s the way we learned, right?

  6. The testing that is being done has only one goal: Closing the public school system. If it were anything else, failing schools would get additional support, more resources, and new teachers. I spent my first 12 years of education in Catholic schools. We had a mixed bag of teachers, from the very bad to the excellent, but enough good teachers that we were able to learn proper grammar, spelling, reading, math, and a smattering of science. Those who did well, though, had at home influences that mattered greatly.

    I recently spoke with two young men who are getting their high school service credits by working at a soup kitchen. I asked each of them what they had learned from the experience. Neither could articulate anything. One wants to be an engineer, the other a surgeon. I’m sure they will attain their goals as long as no one ever takes them out of their comfort zones.

    Educating the young is not just the job of the schools. It is society’s job to make sure they know something. Most will never get adequate support at home. We must all be teachers.

  7. AgingLGrl: my daughter-in-law has home-schooled her two youngest sons (now 14 and 16) for four years. After dealing with bullying of her older son who has a disability preventing him from socializing with others, he is also very tall and thin and has a severe overbite, she made this decision after much thought. He was bullied his first two years in a charter school; when the younger son was ready to start school she enrolled them in the Catholic school where she works as custodial supervisor. The bullying was the same with the added bullying of the younger boy for being the brother. Two more years of meetings trying to get teachers and authorities to stop the bullying but getting nowhere she made her decision. That school year was when the older boy’s teacher tried to prevent him from taking the ISTEP tests saying he was retarded and would lower her class grade average. Another meeting with teachers, authorities and the priest allowed him to be tested with his class. He scored in the highest group of those tested – a very smart kid. The following year she began homeschooling; they both excel in all classes and have high test scores. The older boy is very interested in the political goings-on today and is very outspoken; at times he posts on Facebook, sometimes quoting Greek philosophers to make his point.

    By the way; his disability was caused by the doctor prescribed drug Terbutaline to stop early contractions when his mother was pregnant. It had not been approved by the FDA for anything but treatment of asthma. Initially there were heart problems discovered in the mothers; in recent years medical researchers began studying the effects of Terbutaline on the fetus – autistic type disabilities a major problem. Autism is NOT retardation. There are often good reasons to home-school children; the requirements to qualify for approval, the regulated time-frame for study and the regular tests maintain a high quality level. It is not free; the on-line classes are costly as are the required textbooks, they must pay for the required ISTEP tests yearly. My grandsons are fortunate to have an intelligent, loving and very strong mother who wants them to have the best education she can provide. Working full time, a husband and three sons to care for, the oldest in his third year at Ball State – always an honor student throughout school due to her encouragement and his intelligence. She is also step-mother to a fourth son; assists her mother and 88 year old grandmother and is my primary source of support when I need anything. Her personal time consists of soaking in a hot bath at the end of her day, reading in bed till she falls asleep…by 9:00 p.m.

  8. As difficult as this post was to read, it sounded as music to my ears. I am a writing teacher and I couldn’t agree more that “the only way to teach written communication skills is to have students write. A lot.” The other remark I especially liked and especially agree with is —
    When a student tells me “I know what I mean, I just can’t say it,” my immediate reaction is “Then you don’t know what you mean.” If you can’t express it, you don’t really know it. That is certainly the reaction students can expect from their eventual employers.
    Yay, Sheila!

  9. I’m 47 and attended schools in Terre Haute and for my first Bachelor’s degree I went to ISU. My freshman English stopped class one day and asked how many of us ever dissected a sentence and when was the last time we took grammar. In a class of about 45, I recall 1 person had done this and for me an actual grammar class was in 6th grade. The emphasis was on reading.

    The professor acknowledged that he was aware that education decided to focus more on reading then on grammar. He chose to spend the next 3 weeks on grammar.

    My mom and her sister and my uncle are all teachers and so we have had many discussions through the years on a variety of topics. I recall “whole” language being somewhat hated…they stopped phoenics and went to when language. I recall them stating there were some positives but the concern was some lost concepts (spelling being one of them). I guess the fad is to use both….My mom wanted me to be a teacher and I think I would have liked it but I commented the field is too politically connected and to much that I personally think are poor decisions occur because of politics and not for what is best for the child. I would have liked to teach history, civics, and sociology but I was already told jobs would not have been plentiful.

  10. Here’s what I think is the real problem. There’s so much more to learn now because there’s so much more known about every topic.

    So either we are all going to become much more narrowly educated into very specific specialties as well as learning much more about collaboration or we’re going to avoid that by much more education.

    Much more education can come from more days per year, more years, or substantially more productive teaching or a combination of all of the above.

    So far we’ve invested primarily in blaming which as usual has accomplished nothing.

    This at a time when conservatives are trying to cheapen education.

  11. JoAnn: You mention a special circumstance which I agree was warranted and better for the children.

    What I meant and didn’t describe well, was what I have seen in the past. Those religious couples that want to shelter their children from public school and additionally private school, so that they can ‘brainwash’ their children (like what the Mormons do out west) to ‘protect’ those children from the real world. I guess Amish would fit in that category as well, as rarely do those children not carry on the isolationist viewpoint and get shunned from their families if they do chose not to follow the ‘old way.’

    I worry about those women that are under educated themselves, taking the task of being the parent and teacher to those children and ultimately failing their offspring, our future citizens.

    (I always worry about my grammar and punctuation in my posts when we get to subjects like this, lol. I know I fail miserably sometimes with those things).

  12. So many thoughts regarding education in America. First, the system is broken beyond repair and no amount of money is going to correct the problem. It needs a complete overhaul and a new beginning. The methods used are not working and, frankly, never have. You cannot put a large number of kids from all backgrounds into a room and expect them to learn at the same rate simply because they all are the same age. Amazing how well our one room schoolhouses worked when there were so many different ages involved – and yet the did work very well. Secondly, the problem is not sports in our schools. They are as necessary as any other subject. The problem is the importance the school districts and parents have placed on them. We now have professional athletes in elementary school, kids who are being held back in 1st grade so that they can perform better in high school sports 12 years down the road. This is ridiculous. Thirdly, Pendleton schools only teach 8 -9 weeks of science per year. There is no way a child is going to learn anything at all in 8-9 weeks. Nothing. So I have no clue what is being tested but it cannot anything of import if it being taught in such a short amount of time! Have you actually attempted to discuss science, history, geography or literature with students today? They do not even know the rudimentary basics that we knew when we were in school. Sartre, Camus, Tesla (who is merely a car maker these days) Montessori, Thomas Payne (who today is a British actor who is “hot) Gilgamesh or the Hammurabi Code – they do not know any thing. Their lack of basic knowledge is egregious! Lastly, I homeschooled all three of my children who are now adults. One is a banker who is completing his degree in Organizational/Industrial Psychology at IUPUI on academic scholarship. My youngest is at Duke University. He is 2nd/3rd in the nation right now in Platform Diving for Team USA and will be competing at the Olympic Trials this summer here in INDY. My oldest is a climate negotiator for the US Department of State. Next month HER contributions to the Paris agreement will be read by Barrack Obama and Canadian PM Trudeau at their joint conference on Global Climate change. So before you make any more ignorant remarks on homeschoolers know this – these “adults” are in their 20’s and 30’s and already are affecting change in your government and world. They are far more intelligent than their counterparts graduating from public, private or parochial schools, and because they have not been taught limitations set by classroom structure, they are able to communicate across all social barriers of age, race, religion and more. It does not take a rocket scientist to educate a child. It takes a love for the child and a desire and quest for knowledge. Period.

  13. Here’s a question for the educators on the group. As I understand it, there is very little that can be done to shorten the time necessary for students to learn higher order thinking. Educators know this and year year-after-year standardized tests increase the rigor and complexity of the questions. It would seem more productive, to me, to focus on things like grammar and basic calculation and give the adolescent brain time to become a critical thinker. What we are doing now is very discouraging.

  14. I agree that the 1900 version of education in our country is awful and needs to be rewritten but I stand by my conviction that religious parents that have no knowledge of teaching or educating our youth are allowed to in a home school environment that is not regulated or tested. I’m not saying that some children don’t excel and become productive adults, what I’m saying is we have no basis to measure it against educators that study for it and have masters degrees as professional educators. I’m not saying that all master’s degreed educators are awesome, everyone is human, but those educators are preferred. I hope that I haven’t offended any readers by this stance. Maybe it’s just been my experience and I should shut up? g’night folks. 🙁

  15. I’m with patmcc on the Jockstrap Department, whose goals at times seem totally different from the educational mission of public schools.

    Last fall, I wanted to be able to take my daughter home after she had finished her soccer game instead of her having to sit through another game before the school bus would take everyone back to the school.

    My argument that her time was better spent doing homework at home was met by the athletic department with the counter-argument that it was essential for her to bond with her teammates.

  16. Bravo, Sheila, as usual! Bravo, Eric and Ken! As a country, we’re scrambling for answers to the problems of education; meanwhile, we are falling farther behind. Even on this comment section, we find spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation problems. Some could even buy a paragraph now and again in order to break up a long comment.

    Great topic and thoughtful comments today, everyone.

    A trainer of nurses recently told me that her students who are aiming for advanced degrees in nursing, where accuracy in writing is so very important, especially to patients and others who need to read that nurse’s information, are shockingly ill-prepared to be at the level for these advanced degrees. Shuffled along in order to pass them? Poor students but “tried hard” in high school and early college? Daddy on the board of that university or hospital and known for writing big checks? My friend the trainer said that many could not write a simple English sentence. Yes, they need cursive writing for several reasons. Yes, they need math skills that lead fairly quickly to correct answers. And most importantly, they need critical thinking skills so that they can solve even the most elementary of problems. We can do this, and no, it will not happen overnight.

  17. I learned to read. See Spot Run, Spot can run. So now you know how old I am. I recall from my days in English H.S. our teacher reading a part of an Ian Fleming novel on James Bond. (Racy stuff back in 1960’s) The section was on Bond walking into a room, and Fleming describing the room. He painted a picture if you will, and you had to imagine it. I read Dracula by Bram Stoker in H.S. and I actually imagined myself some where in Transylvania.
    I suppose over my life time of reading almost every night and have discerned who can pull you in the story, a good writer pulls you in. I like Military and Political History some writers are far more successful at painting that big picture and other just recite facts.
    At some point a child needs to learn how to read, and understand what they have read, and then farther down the line they need to read Howard Zinn to teach them how to think.

  18. Educators and – to a growing extent – parents are rebelling nationwide against testing mania which has squeezed so much out of the school environment. Testing and test prep on math and reading reign supreme.

    Educators have been complaining mightily, but Jeb Bush, testing companies and their policymaking supporters have moved to strip educators of input such as equal representation with non-educators on policymaking boards and enforceable input at teacher bargaining tables and in contracts. Indiana’s legislature outlawed teachers’ right to bargain procedures on professional matters such as curricular development and the procedures for teacher evaluation. In Tennessee, the evaluations of teachers who don’t teach a tested subject are based on the test results from OTHER classrooms. It’s insanity.

    Hoosier charter schools and voucher-recipient private schools also receive a school grade based on their students’ standardized test scores. (Remember the Tony Bennett scandal in changing a grade for his favored charter school from an “A” to a “C”? Giving whole schools a grade based on a standardized test score is a Jeb Bush idea that Bennett and Mitch Daniels bought into lock, stock, and barrel. It has turned schools into a standardized testing assembly line as if students are widgets for destination to a factory outlet for employment.

    This won’t change until enough parents and educators say ‘enough’ and vote to replace federal and state policymakers with those who want holistic education for children who learn not only job skills but the knowledge and skills to care for themselves and their community.

    t local communities will only regain control of their own schools when enough parents say ‘enough’ and vote for a real change in state and federal governments.

  19. After a deep hibernation of 10 years, Clarence Thomas awakes and asks a question …

    What is the world coming to ?

  20. Thank you, Sheila. Nothing new, but well written. Doubly sad because the teachers are in a catch 22; they are forced to teach in a way that limits learning and then condemned for that lack of learning. And triply sad because these are our young people. Depressing.

  21. I wish I had more time to comment on this. I teach college art students, and after 12 years in a system that only values testing, many students come to me stifled, rules oriented, and afraid to step outside the lines. That’s fine if all you want is a force of worker bees who follow the rules and can’t think their way out of a box, but for innovation and creativity, you need to promote risk-taking and – dare I say it? – PLAY. It’s not just an art thing. For business to thrive, it needs innovation, critical thinking, and risk-taking. You don’t get that teaching to a test. Bring back the art and music classes. Hell, even Steve Jobs said that his sense of design came from taking a calligraphy class. Where will we be if students aren’t even given the time to learn cursive?

  22. “When a student tells me “I know what I mean, I just can’t say it,” my immediate reaction is “Then you don’t know what you mean.”

    The above sentence is, hands down, the best sentence I’ve read on this blog! I’ve used similar variations on that clear and concise thought and occasionally it was not well received by the current crop of high school administrators. But, it always was well received by the students who seemed to understand the combination of truth and humor.

    The education reform movement of today is not the result of a single political party, but rather is the only clearly bi-partisan focus in the US. From NCLB (Bush) to RTT (Obama), from a former and the current Whitehouse to countless Statehouses, and now in your local schoolhouse. This will not be solved by the usual finger-pointing of partisan politics. Students are not political pawns.

    The majority of charter schools here in Indianapolis are abysmal, some more so than others with Herron School being an exception. For the most part, I equate charter schools with storefront schools that naturally do not have adequate libraries or outdoor playground space for young students.

  23. It’s almost (but not quite) comical to read some of the better writers among twenty- and thirty-somethings on teh innerwebs. I would say perhaps one in ten of my high-school tutoring students are good writers; another two are marginally acceptable in getting their ideas across, although word choice and organization seem to the last skills that are acquired. The remaining 7 are, yes, abysmal.

    But what’s laughable are some of the submissions from aspiring professional writers that appear in slick, popular, well-read websites. Lapses of logic, cliches thrown around like confetti, responses to & criticisms of points that weren’t actually made in the piece of writing being discussed. Medium is the particular site I’m thinking of – some truly excellent medium- and long-read pieces, alongside some well-meaning but unsuccessful writing that reminds you of an undergraduate newspaper that takes itself too seriously.

    One site that is popular with the youngsters that should be avoided at all costs is ThoughCatalog – poorly written, navel-gazing dreck from people who invariably have the word ‘writer’ in their profiles, along with ‘creative’ used as a noun. As in “I’m a videographer, writer, and free-lance creative living in Brooklyn.” You just might vomit.

  24. @Ron, verbification has reached new levels in spoken language and in written language. In a graduate level linguistics class from years ago where I was introduced to Chomsky as the linguistic, this practice was called verbing, converting a perfectly good verb into a noun or vice versa, a noun into a verb. In closing, as a fellow creative, let’s dialogue soon.

  25. Ken,
    I realize that my response is a little late in the game, but a lot has been done in the area of developmental psychology looking into thinking skills and levels. If you are interested, Piaget’s work is a beginning, but read someone’s explanation. Don’t read Piaget’s work itself, because it’s really hard, and not a lot of people understand him. And do not read Vygotsky unless you really love being confused. In any case, schools do, in fact, require some skills which children are not ready to learn, but they learn them rote and only later things “snap in place”, e.g., the concept of “regrouping” in subtraction requires conservation skills which aren’t achieved until well after children learn how to do double-digit subtraction. While there are definitely stages, you can prepare children for various levels.

    Your point is excellent. Children need to learn how to think and communicate, be challenged to think deeply and critically, respect and aspire. Reading widely and critically, talking about what they have read and asking questions with people who will respect them for those questions and help them ask more of them is what education should be, because it focuses on what it means to be human. When various thinking levels “kick in”, they are ready for it. These are issues that will never occur to Mr. Pence or our legislative body. After all, they have been elected, so they think they know all they need to know. Who needs data when you have ideology?

  26. That should’ve been “ThoughtCatalog,” not ThoughCatalog. But don’t read it, it’s very discouraging.

    @BSH, all the Romance languages allow verbification, and I guess I don’t really object to it per se. What annoys me is that the intention is not to convey something new or subtle, but to self-identify with an in-crowd that really isn’t all that creative or perceptive. The phrase ‘execute on’ is another bizarre neologism whose only purpose is to indicate that the user is under 35 and wishes they lived in silicon valley.

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