Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What's Wrong with Testing? A quick summary. And related info.

The Washington Post's "The Answer Sheet" has run a guest column today by teacher curriculum designer Marion Brady, listing (again!) the trouble with Testing.
"Teachers oppose the tests because they’re at odds with deep-seated American values about individual differences and worth; undermine a fundamental democratic principle that those closest to and therefore most knowledgeable about problems are best positioned to deal with them; dump major public money into corporate coffers instead of classrooms.

"I, a retired teacher beyond the reach of today’s 'reformers,' oppose the tests for those reasons, and for the psychological damage they do to kids not yet able to cope. But my particular, personal beef is that the tests (and the Common Core State Standards on which they’re based) are blocking policymaker consideration of what I believe to be the most promising educational innovation in the last century — the use of general systems theory as it developed during World War II as a tool for reshaping and radically simplifying the 'core curriculum.'"
As a classroom teacher, I was surprised at how much time I had to spend focusing on prepping students for spring testing. It was weeks and weeks. Well—it was the whole year, really, because the principal and academic coaches use that data as a benchmark. I can't say it was without benefit—good educators use the data to target instruction, see where some strengths and weaknesses are. But the efforts are to the detriment of developing the whole child. Why should music education be limited to the students who are doing so well academically that they can miss class, for example?

The use of systems theory in re-examining standard curriculum is interesting, and could add depth and dimension to instruction that not all teachers are able to provide currently. It's an opportunity for project-based learning that sounds exciting to me. And that could provide opportunities for even reluctant learners to become involved in school. Hmmmm...!

Testing, creativity and charters can collide, as the New York Times reported yesterday. The story highlights a charter with 85 percent proficiency that has been deemed a "failing" school under the legal guidelines. As you read what the school offers, you may be saying, "Huh?!"

"'The attitude was if we did good teaching and we were passionate and energetic, kids would learn and that would be enough,' said Ms. [Linda] Rief, [a 25-year Oyster River teacher] who is 67. Rief was the NCTE teacher of the year in 2000. [Note: I have been a paying member of NCTE.]

"No more. Last year, the No Child Left Behind law, which calls for 100 percent proficiency by 2014, caught up with Oyster River. Under the law’s mandates for adequate yearly progress toward that goal, the school was one of 326 public schools in New Hampshire — 69 percent of the total — deemed to be failing.

Oyster River is a failing school because about a dozen of its 110 special education children did not score high enough."

So, because of the way the law is written, currently effective methods of teaching must be changed for the entire student body of 624, according to GreatSchools.net at a school where twelve students struggled. The school's new motto? "'Fill the Box.' Students have been told that their best chance for a high score on the state English test is to use all the blank space allotted for the essay. Ugh. Quantity over quality is not a goal, it should be a starting point!

In the midst of the pressure, educators trying to find a new balance are looking to these "alternative" educational methods for inspiration. Harvard Education Letter published "Waldorf Education in Public Schools: Educators adopt—and adapt—this developmental, arts-rich approach" with an intriguing lead: "In the quest to fix ailing schools, should we slow down to move faster?"

The story runs in its Nov./Dec. 2011 edition. It very lightly outlines the Waldorf philosophy, touching on what some traditionally-educated parents see as a concern: Students learn skills at a slower pace than in traditional public schools. (A loosely related article I just stumbled on at Harvard Education Letter here.) In our instant-gratification (and frequently testing) society, the big picture is lost. In the Waldorf big picture, students gain confidence and personal development during those early years that allow them to shoot ahead academically in late elementary school and middle school, and succeed as adults.

A Waldorf-inspired charter, Novato, had to look at its methods, too, to meet the state benchmarks, according to the story, and in this case there were a few happy endings.

"What began with denial and pushback from faculty, however, turned into a realization that what they already did fit standards, she says; they just needed to be more explicit. For example, second-graders who were making their own pentagons for a class exercise weren’t being taught the word 'pentagon' in a way that they would recognize the word on the state tests. 'We know the pentagon will be on the second-grade test,' she says, 'so now the teacher will write ‘pentagon’ on the board, and the kids get to the test and say, ‘Oh I’ve seen that before.’ '

When testing simply can inform great teaching methods that support the education of the whole student, that's a successful outcome. But it's not the only way to achieve one.

While I was an elementary student I was told "Don't worry about the test, it's just measuring what we have taught you, like the doctor measures how much you weigh." The tests were important but not life-changing, and I never was given any indication that they were something to lose sleep over. As a teacher, I realized it's a new ballgame now, since funding is tied to the results. I am enthusiastic about the spirit of the schools in the Harvard Education Letter article. These approaches can support and nurture a child's love of learning.

But some of these methods take time, and time to invest in the whole child is hard to quantify. Quantifying, of course, is an inexpensive method of showing evaluation, which is what makes it so hot in public schools. But is this all we want? Is it enough? Personally, I'd prefer Starboy receive the longhand evaluation letters that schools like Waldorf offer at each marking period. But I think out-of-the-box that way.

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