Saturday, May 15, 2010

Standardized Tests Don't Show Students' Successes

Tony Salm, a 5th grade dual language teacher in Oregon, recently wrote this opinion piece for his local newspaper. It is printed here with his permission.

It's a familiar routine: third-, fourth- and fifth-graders sitting glumly in front of computer screens or the seventh, eighth or ninth time, using their passwords to log in to the secure state testing system. The students' only assignment is to read from the screen and carefully use a computer mouse to correctly choose a response: A, B, C or D.
Welcome to the world of No Child Left Behind.
We now test children almost as soon as they're out of diapers. Does anyone ever stop to think about the damaging emotional effects that the pressures of constant testing and test preparation may have on the very young?
There will always be students who easily do well on these kinds of "assessments," but there will inevitably be others who, for reasons of culture, poverty, unfamiliarity with computers or just plain test anxiety — do not. A good number of these children possess very high academic potential, but don't fit into the test makers' narrow, precooked notions of precisely what it is that constitutes "achievement."
Standardized tests are shallow and demonstrably unreliable instruments. When every test question is reduced to four possible responses, many students become expert at deducing correct answers through simple elimination — also known as guessing. Nowhere on a standardized reading test is a child asked to summarize a passage or generate his or her own response to it. Consequently it is not uncommon that poor readers "pass," while some of the better readers (with test anxiety) do not. Far from improving our educational system, NCLB is dumbing it down.
What's more, we are doing actual damage to our children's imaginations. No longer is elementary school a place to imagine, to dream, to create or to question. As a predictable ramification of NCLB, instruction in non-tested subjects such as geography, art, poetry and music has often gone by the wayside, replaced by heavy drilling in test-taking.
We must reform this ill-conceived law in a manner that envisions our young people as unique and creative human beings. The artistic child, the child who thinks outside the box, the child who writes, the child who thinks critically and asks challenging questions is too often the one who goes unrecognized (or "left behind") in today's testing treadmill.
Holding students and teachers accountable is one thing; transforming our schools into uninspiring and stultifying factories is quite another. If "setting standards" means envisioning our youth as nothing more than products on an assembly line, it's about time we re-thought what it is we really want from our educational system.
When we jump unquestioningly aboard the "accountability" bandwagon as it is currently conceived, we place our expectations exceedingly low, prioritizing conformity over creativity, passivity over active questioning. Looking back at history, whenever great leaps of progress have been made in math, science, literature or the arts, it was precisely because of individuals whose answers to the questions generated by the conventional wisdom of their day was: "None of the above."

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