Do you remember a teacher or other school employee who made a difference in your life? Perhaps someone who really brought an academic subject to life, or who simply helped you through a difficult time? How about a class or subject that thrilled you and made you want to learn more and more, even after you’d completed your assignments and passed the final exam?
Now think back to all of the standardized tests you’ve ever taken. Remember that one SAT analogy question that set you on the course to your future career? The multiple choice math problem that gave you the courage to try something you’d always been afraid to attempt before?
If you are struggling to come up with something, don’t feel bad. Neither of us can either, because while standardized tests have long been a part of public education, until recently, they’ve never been mistaken for its point and purpose.
Let’s stop pretending that a test score tells us all we need to know about our students, their teachers, or the public schools.
That critical distinction is totally lost in our test-obsessed effort to turn our students into statistics. These tests are not meant to help teachers monitor student progress and tailor lessons to students’ individual needs. Instead, standardized tests are increasingly used as the single measure by which we judge the success of a school, the quality of its staff, and the learning of its students. And that’s just wrong.
We would never tell a doctor that a stethoscope is the only tool she needs to gauge her patients’ health, even if the tool is useful for its limited purpose. And we’d certainly object if a company that manufactures and sells stethoscopes tried to convince us to disregard ultrasounds, CAT scans and blood pressure readings. In medicine, we accept that no single measure can tell us all we need to know about a patient’s health.
We also know that identifying a health problem is only the first step. It’s much more important to find out what is causing the problem and act to remedy it. We rarely blame the doctor who identified the problem for causing it in the first place.
But in education, a single diagnostic tool – the standardized test — is being misused both to measure things it cannot really measure and to punish schools, students, and teachers for circumstances and outcomes they do not control. Class time that should be devoted to learning is now devoted instead to test-taking and test-preparation. Subjects that aren’t tested are necessarily pushed to the periphery.
Our children deserve better and we can do better. The National Education Association and New Jersey Education Association support a return to sane testing practices. Let’s use these tests as one way, among many, to assess what students are learning and identify areas that need special attention.
Let’s cut back on the number of standardized tests and the amount of class time devoted to preparing for them, and give that time instead to real teaching and learning.
Let’s lower the stakes, so that schools and teachers won’t be forced to look for every last way to artificially boost scores just a couple more points. We don’t need any more school assemblies to get students pumped up about testing week.
And please, let’s stop pretending that a test score tells us all we need to know about our students, their teachers, or the public schools in our communities.
This year, let’s work together to reclaim the thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of learning for its own sake that identify a great public school better than any test score ever could.
This column was published in the New Jersey Star-Ledger by
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association.
Wendell Steinhauer is president of the New Jersey Education Association.