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.