Teaching to the Test?


The headlines blared: “Scandal in Atlanta Reignites Debate Over Tests’ Role”“School Cheating Scandal Shakes up Atlanta.” The story, which involved teachers falsely improving student scores on the statewide exams in as many as 58 schools, was the largest in recent history—but by no means has it been the only instance, or perhaps even the most severe, of cheating on standardized testing.

In the extremely popular book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner spend a chapter discussing the story of another set of teachers (this time in Chicago) who were systematically adjusting student answers on state exams. In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner discuss numerous incentives for teachers to cheat on behalf of their students, ranging from fear of being fired (if a school were put on probation due to low test scores), being passed over for promotion or tenure, or the positive incentive of raises and promotions for big test gains—but for the purpose of this editorial, I want to ask us to reevaluate standardized testing in light of how it teaches us to conceive of education. I want to think about what it teaches students, teachers, and the broader public policy community—and offer a thought about ways in which we might move forward.

According to the Washington Post, “Students preparing to leave high school are faring no better in reading or math than their peers four decades ago, the government said Thursday. Officials attributed the bleak finding on more lower-performing students staying in school rather than dropping out.”

While gains have been made in reading and in math since the early 1970s (when these metrics were first measured nationally), students do not seem to be leaving high school more prepared for college. If anything, standardized tests have increased the hoops to jump through to graduate, but they have added little significance to the student’s education. High performing nations—Japan and Korea in particular—strongly emphasize standardized testing, which seems to be an indication that standardized testing and performance might not be inversely linked. But standardized tests in these countries continue to raise questions about student anxiety and depression, and still leave us with the question: Do these tests truly measure a student’s preparedness for the next grade level?

I submit that standardized testing teaches students that education is about jumping through a set of standards set more by policymakers than by teachers; it teaches them that achievement in learning is calculated according to a Scantron machine. It teaches that preparedness is measurable in multiple-choice, true-false answers, ones that often miss the process of learning, which is as crucial to success as is the content learned. If students think of learning as memorizing the right formulas and the right things for a particular exam, haven’t we missed the importance of teaching them to be curious and pursue their curiosity in search of answers and better questions?

...we are hoping to develop humans with strong sense of citizenship and leadership, curious about the world and eager to participate fully in it.

In many states, it is not only student progress that is tied to statewide testing—it is teacher evaluation and school funding as well. A classroom’s collective performance on a standardized test often has a significant effect on teacher evaluation through a system known as “Value Added Model” or VAM. In VAM, states such as Oklahoma use multiple years of standardized testing data to comprise the quantitative portion of the teacher evaluations. In April, several teachers filed a lawsuit in Florida because their teaching evaluations were tied to standardized testing results of students they had, not that year, but years before.

The Washington Post reported that Kim Cook, who originally filed the lawsuit, taught students in first grade but was evaluated based on their standardized tests from several years later—resulting in an “unsatisfactory” evaluation. This method puts pressure on teachers to teach to the test, rather than to teach their particular students. In Freakonomics, Dubner and Levitt observed that teacher cheating to improve their students’ scores could be due in part to the pressure that teachers feel to ensure their jobs by way of high scores. If this is the case, we are sending a message that the creativity and flexibility needed to teach diverse students in diverse ways is less important than teaching all students to the particular test.

Finally, what does this emphasis and discussion of standardized testing teach the public policy community? Certainly lawmakers are concerned about student performance—and they should be. But as Jonathan Kozol observed in his book Savage Inequalities, there are troubling correlations between race, income inequality, and inequality in education. The schools that struggle most are often in the poorest suburbs and inner cities—often with higher number of minority students—and these schools are most at risk when funding is determined by performance. If good performance on standardized testing yields more state and federal funding, or even more access to that funding, the lower performing schools become trapped in a pattern of underperformance.

Racial injustice and economic injustice become pressing considerations for us as we address education as a policy community: Do our reforms take into account these factors? How should they? I fear that standardized testing teaches the policy community to think of all public schools as too similar to one another—capable of producing similar results or achieving similar thresholds, without sufficiently considering the diversity of schools and the students they serve. Standardized tests by nature are trying to compare everyone according to one basic standard—but they fail to account for the many factors that go into discovering how a student will learn best, and how a school will teach best.

However, lawmakers are beginning to also hear the concerns of the education community that standardized testing is not necessarily the best approach to measuring school, student or teacher performance. According to the Washington Post, in Texas earlier in June, Governor Rick Perry signed education reforms that seek to address concerns about standardized testing throughout the state.

The article states, “The Texas testing revolt first got traction when, in January 2012, the state education commissioner at the time, Robert Scott, said the mentality that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be.” The reforms in Texas include reducing the number of standardized tests that students must pass in order to graduate, from 15 down to 5, and looking at numerous other reforms. Indiana and Oklahoma, are also looking at their standardized testing in a new light after both states experienced significant trouble with the technology behind the tests.

Standardized testing seems to teach students, teachers and policymakers that learning is measurable and achievable according to a set rubric, one that can be used broadly with all students, schools, and states. But wouldn’t it be better to think of education as a dynamic, diverse process? I think about alternative types of education (Montessori, Waldorf, etc.) who emphasize creating and maintaining a portfolio of student work to demonstrate the student’s ability, who focus on the student’s progress towards goals set by the curriculum, by the school, and by the teacher and family themselves. While grade point averages and standardized testing results do provide a quick way to compare students, portfolios and other more comprehensive accounts of a student’s work give evaluation a qualitative depth that the numbers lack.

Waldorf education is particularly thoughtful in considering why we send our students to school in the first place. It reminds us that we are hoping to develop humans with strong sense of citizenship and leadership, curious about the world and eager to participate fully in it. David Mitchell and other Waldorf teachers put it best in this article,

“The difference between storing content and developing capacities is simple enough: in the one, you receive, primarily via eye and ear, something from without; in the other, you generate, usually with the participation of your entire body, something from within. Instruction proceeds from the outside in; education from the inside out. Both aspects are needed at appropriate stages of development, but education entails a more active, participative—albeit more time-consuming––form of learning.”

This is the reason we send our students to school—for the education of and drawing out of the student’s mind and thought. Standardized testing doesn’t seem able to get at this process. But I want to know your thoughts—what kind of role do you think standardized testing can play in the life of a school, a teacher, a student?

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt