This is the fifth post in a six-part series on general education issues. I was recently invited to be part of a panel discussion after a screening of the film Rise Above the Mark, and these posts will continue that conversation. This space will not be used for a review or critique of the film, parts of which I agreed with and parts of which I did not. The film and the discussion it has inspired have, however, brought key education issues into a broader forum, and it is these that I will address in this series.
What is the effect of testing on instruction?
Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and gathering them around him taught them saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek,
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who thirst for justice.
Blessed are you when you suffer.
Be glad and rejoice for your reward is great in heaven."
Then, Simon Peter said, "Do we have to write this down?"
And, Andrew said, "Are we supposed to know this?"
And, James said, "Will this be on the test?"
And, Phillip said, "I don't have any paper."
And, Bartholomew said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this."
And, John said, "Do we have to turn this in?"
And, Matthew said, "Can I go to the bathroom?"
And, Judas said, "What does this have to do with real life?"
Then, one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan and inquired of Jesus: "Where is your anticipatory set of objectives in the cognitive domain?"
And Jesus wept.
I am not sure when someone first brought this piece to my attention, but it has been a source of laughter and tears among teachers for a long time. While much of the humor derives from thinking of the disciples behaving as modern school children, I want to focus on the reply of James, for of all the other whining complaints, this is the one that grown adults today seem to take seriously.
One of the questions I prepared to answer during the panel discussion for Rise Above the Mark dealt with the effect of testing on teaching and specifically on lost instructional time. Rather than rely only on my own experience, I conducted highly scientific research to determine precisely the effect of testing on classrooms around Indiana. In short, I emailed and Facebook messaged a bunch of teacher friends around the state. Here are their replies.
[At my school] the emphasis on standardized tests has led to common formative assessments. I firmly believe (from my own experience and from observing PLCs) that all of this emphasis on "delivering a consistent product" ends up stifling the creativity and therefor the enthusiasm of individual teachers. If I want to try something different and no one else wants to try it, then I either can't do it or I have to take the risk of falling behind everyone else. Teachers in my department often seem reluctant to try anything that helps students learn the concepts because there are so many standards that need to be addressed and they feel they don't have the time. In the end, all that is tested are basic skills and "what gets tested is what gets taught."
Students lose instructional time not only in the course that is being tested, but also in other courses. For instance, quite a few of my ... students recently missed my class because they needed to take the English 10 ECA. Students who took the Biology and Algebra ECA exams in December also missed classes for other subject areas.
There is a large portion of the instructional calendar dedicated to preview/review for standardized tests. As a result, it has also caused teachers/departments to reduce some of the content of their teaching, thus removing some of the more engaging topics they can often get students excited about learning. It is not uncommon to hear even gifted teachers say things like, "I would love to teach this, but it's not part of the test."
Other than an inconsistent and unreliable way of evaluating teacher performance, I have seen little in the way of positive feedback toward instruction. Although most standardized tests do segment questions into general content areas, this information is not actionable in helping teachers identify what areas of instruction could be improved. This is compounded by the fact that scores are rarely available in a timely fashion that would allow the data to help the student who took the test. At best, the standardized test scores could only improve future instruction and have little to no bearing on the student whose scores are being considered.
[Testing] wears down students, reducing their concentration on other tests.
Here is how important testing is to me. I would forget to do it if I did not write it down. This actually happened when I was student teaching. I had been so engaged in the actual work of teaching that when I glanced at the calendar and saw the end of the term approaching, I flipped out over the realization that I had forgotten to give any tests.
Yes, we want students to synthesize, to pull together their learning in meaningful ways, and there are many avenues to enable this. Tests, especially the standardized kind, are but one of those avenues, and too often they are more like dark, scary alleys where true learning is mugged.
I am reminded of a part of Cicero's first speech against Catiline, delivered in November, 63 B.C. To motivate the senators against what he saw as a clear and present danger to Rome, he recalled a past time when Roman virtue was made of sterner stuff. "Fuit, fuit ista quondam in hac republica virtus...." "There was, there was once such courage in this republic...." Taking my stand behind the lectern instead of on the rostrum, I would echo those words. There was, there was once in our state and country the recognition that testing was merely a tool, and only one of many. There was an acknowledgment that it should not direct the teaching. There was a reason why kept testing in its proper, subordinate place of modest importance, and I will let the words of a colleague speak to it.
Individual test results aren't really being used to help the individual student. Good teachers are consistently collecting data/information/impressions about their students. It is these individual classroom assessments that are most helpful in terms of day-to-day instruction.
I have rarely had a surprise from a test. I know my students. I do not take attendance by calling out their ID numbers. I know that Maddie and Keeler are the ones who are absent. We interact as people do. We know each other. Because of our daily interaction in meaningful tasks, I am not surprised by their performance on an exam. What does surprise me is the lengths to which adults will go to diminish the time for students and teachers to walk together on the shared journey of discover that is education.