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Schools: Testing Mania Has Gone Too Far

The Great Neck Board of Education recently took on the issue of state-mandated tests and said “Enough!”

In a resolution sent to everyone from local politicians to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the board declared “the growing reliance on, and mismanagement of, standardized testing is eroding student learning time, narrowing the curriculum and jeopardizing the rich, meaningful education our students need and deserve.”

I don’t want to bore you with the testing schedule of the average public school student, but to put it mildly, it is intense and getting more so each year. Or to look at it another way, if you came down with a mysterious illness and your doctor sent you to the hospital for tests, chances are you’d undergo far fewer evaluations than the typical middle schooler endures in an academic year.

The goal of all this testing isn’t to enrich the large, international companies that provide the tests (or at least that’s what we’re told). Rather, it is to make sure that every student picks up every nuance of the state-mandated curriculum at the state-mandated pace, and does so at an ever-improving rate, pretty much regardless of special needs or not having much of a knowledge of the English language. Students who don’t meet the standards are deemed to be victims of bad schools and bad teachers, and those schools and teachers must be punished accordingly.

I know, it sounds like an overstatement or at least an oversimplification. But it isn’t. Though tests and grades have always been yardsticks, the number-crunching is now being taken to absurd lengths. Today, education is an increasingly data-intensive industry where spreadsheets tell us how much our children are learning and how well our schools and teachers are performing.

Once, the mission of public education was to build good citizens with fairly broad knowledge and a moral compass; today it is to turn out young people who are “college-ready” and/or have the skills employers need. Asia’s students who outscore our kids in math and science are the bogeymen we must beat on their terms. From what I can see, America’s educational “visionaries” (i.e. billionaires such as Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg who made their fortunes gathering and crunching data) want our public education system to be high-tech trade schools, an updated version of how the industrialists of an earlier age viewed public education.

As the Great Neck board points out, test-taking and test-prep eat into time that could be spent actually teaching and learning. If elite-level districts such as Great Neck are complaining about the waste of resources, imagine what it is like in schools where poverty and poor performance are the hallmarks. After all, students such as those in Great Neck and other top Nassau County districts who have had year after year of all of the advantages that money can buy, typically don’t require a lot of preparation to pass the state tests.

But in the middle school/high school where I taught in the South Bronx, it was very different.

“Our kids don’t know how to take tests,” the school’s Lead Teacher told me. To enhance their test-taking skills, I was instructed to administer weekly quizzes as well as weekly tests with questions plucked from the prior year’s Regent‘s exam. This class time spent with #2 pencils and Scantron forms was in addition to the regular city, state and principal-mandated tests.

It probably would have boosted my data-driven rating as a teacher to ignore most other coursework and turn my English class into a test-prep boot camp, but I didn’t have the heart. The kids already were facing test-prep in most other subjects, and exam fatigue was apparent even early in the school year.

It got to the point where many kids put nothing more on a test sheet than their name. Some even skipped that. Passing? Failing? The scores on the numerous exams didn’t mean much to these kids as they never met with any consequences whether they diligently read and answered each question or spent the test period staring off into space and surreptitiously checking the messages on their cell phones. Their parents were mollified when virtually all passed the class and moved on to the next grade. How could this happen? I don’t have space here to open the Black Box of Student Data. Just bear in mind that there is a great deal of pressure on teachers from above to pass students (teachers who fail students are often labeled “ineffective”) and that administrators typically are the final arbiters of scores.

It’s commendable that Great Neck has so strongly opposed this testing mania. Now, I believe it is time for communities everywhere to make similar statements. We must work to prevent our schools — especially those serving the most needy students — from becoming test-prep factories and giving up almost entirely on what America has long thought of as “education.”

John Owens’ book Confessions Of A Bad Teacher debuts in early August. Publishers Weekly said the book “will be useful for anyone considering a teaching career.” It can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com and www.thebadteacher.com.