As we approach the beginning of a new school year, we find that education is in a crisis primarily due to the standardized testing mania that currently exists in the country. Teachers and parents need to ask themselves if the emphasis on testing and the time devoted to test preparation is helping to improve education, or whether education is being negatively impacted. Experts in the field of education such as Diane Ravitch, author of The Life and Death of the Great American School System, strongly believe the culture of testing, which began with 'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB) and is continuing with 'Race to the Top'(RTTT), is spreading through every school in the country. Ravitch believes the consequences of these misguided programs are "toxic" and students and teachers will suffer its consequences. She cites how most schools today devote far too much time to "drill and practice" in preparation for testing and not enough time to subjects such as history, science, the arts, geography and, as ridiculous as it may seem, even recess is being curtailed in many schools.
Likewise, the noted child growth and development specialist, Dr. David Elkind, author of Miseducation and The Hurried Child is very concerned about what is happening in many schools which are attempting to teach academic skills to preschoolers and kindergarteners as an outgrowth of test- driven instruction. As a result, he claims, we see many symptoms of stress in young children including headaches, learning problems, and even depression.
The pattern in schools across the country, both urban and suburban, is one in which Elkind describes as a "downward extension of the curriculum." In other words, what used to be taught in first and second grade is now being taught in kindergarten. This, in Elkind's words, is what he refers to as "miseducation" which, unfortunately for many children, can result in lifelong emotional disabilities.
Like all educational fads that come and go, the testing mania will soon be history. It is, without doubt, one of the worst educational fads to ever hit education and, unfortunately, with the present Secretary of Education, Mr. Arne Duncan, who is currently the most vociferous advocate of testing with his 'Race to the Top' program, it appears that testing will be with us longer than most teachers would have hoped for or anticipated. Duncan's misguided notion of education reform is based primarily on test scores and it is, indeed, a radicalized notion that even espouses evaluating teachers' classroom performance on the basis of how well their students perform on standardized tests. Ironically, Secretary Duncan is also proposing national standards and one would have to assume his rationale for national standards and tweaking tests to be harder would be that tests are better and more reliable if more children fail them.
Instead of this obsession with standardized testing, shouldn't we as educators and parents be questioning the entire concept of whether testing constitutes educational reform?
Hence, it is time for teachers to consider strategies in order to deal with the current sterile environment in education brought about asan outgrowth of NCLB and RTTT programs. Needless to say, it will be a very challenging and high-stakes battle as test-prone administrators, as well as local school boards, legislators and the State Boards of Education will place teachers in an adversarial position in this crucial struggle. It is critical for teachers to maintain a philosophical outlook that denigrates testing by attempting to spend a minimal amount of instructional time on this dastardly task in order to free up more time during the school day for real learning. Secondly, communicate with parents in your class the difference between test preparation,which is superficial learning based on facts, dates, etc., and real learning in which students learn how to think, research and develop a real love of learning. The only way teachers can overcome the pressures imposed on them by the testing zealots is to have parental support. Do you recall what happened in Scarsdale, New York when parents said “enough is enough” regarding time wasted on preparing students for testing and were able to put a moratorium on standardized testing. We need an army of parents collaborating with teachers who are vocal and who know that testing is bad for kids in order to help bring about real educational reform in this country. If enough parental support can be generated to rid the nation’s schools of the standardized testing burden, I guarantee that local school boards and politicians would change their tune.
And finally, we need to end what Secretary Arne Duncan is doing by financially rewarding states and school districts with additional funding who meet the goals of his misguided 'Race to the Top' program. His concept of reform is inequality at its worse and, in essence, many school districts, especially urban schools, who do not meet these rigid standards will only be made poorer. This is what happens when a non-educator is appointed to a position of educational leadership who doesn’t have the credentials or educational expertise that an educator in this position would have. Mr. Duncan's critics believe his leadership is based on fear, repression and punishment and that his policies are incompatible with the goals of public education. One would be naive to think that overturning the testing mania is an easy task as there are powerful interest groups that are leading the high-stakes testing game. As teachers and parents, we need to make our voices heard at the local level and we need to defend the concept of the neighborhood school. We must vehemently strive to rid education of the so called "top-down" type of leadership and educational decision making as reform can only be effective when grass roots are established and educational reform moves upward not downward. We must also preserve, at all costs, the sanctity of the neighborhood school concept. It is in the neighborhood school in which teachers and parents are empowered and where opportunities will be provided for decision making by teachers and parents who are closest to the child. This is truly the essence of sound educational reform.