If ‘teaching to the test’ bugs you, don’t blame the test

Some parents have begun pulling their kids out of statewide standardized testing. They say its stresses out their kids, for no good reason.

This is part of a growing rebellion against so-called high-stakes testing. Many feel these batteries of test are harmful to kids and to education, leading to evils such as cheating and teaching to the test.

Well, I agree that the status quo on testing is disgraceful – but not for exactly the same reasons.

I think testing kids to generate useful data a on their progress, and b) on the performance of the adults charged with educating them is not only defensible, but in fact necessary.

In many fields, from baseball to meteorology, a rigorous devotion to collecting and analyzing data has transformed performance. No human endeavor is more important than teaching, but few have more resistant to accountability based on data.

The No Child Left Behind law had some very big conceptual flaws (and many problems in execution), but the notion that we need to test how schools are doing was not one of them.

I don’t think the tests have failed. Nor have the kids. I think the adults in charge of the testing have failed the kids in a miserable, cowardly way.

Remember: Schools have been giving kids high stakes tests since, well, since I was a kid.

The only difference was that, back in the day, the students were the only ones facing the high stakes.

Such as: Will Mom be mad at me; can I get my learner’s permit; which college can I get into. Huge stuff to a kid.

Not many voices used to lament how terrible the SATs were for how they put pressure on 16-year-olds.

No, the wailing about high-stakes testing stared only after the stakes started applying to adults.

Remember this also: In the cheating scandals now exploding in Philly, Atlanta and elsewhere, it’s the adults doing the cheating, not the kids.

Well, what about that other problem: “teaching to the test,” with its overemphasis on rote drill, and its many school days lost to frantic test prep?

Let me quote a co-worker who grew up in New York State, where kids have taken a high-stakes test called the Regents Exams since 1866.

She told me: “In high school, my teacher told us: Don’t worry, the Regents is the easiest test you’ll take all year.”

In other words: We’ve taught you so well that this upcoming No. 2 pencil exercise will be cake.

That’s the point. If you’re confident you’re teaching your students well, you don’t don’t have to teach to the test. (Let me stipulate here that this is true only if the test is aligned both with reality, and with sound, shared academic standards. One of NCLB’s great flaws was its ideological aversion to national standards.)

But the problems lumped under “teaching to the test” are neither mandated nor inevitable. They are a scared choice, made by scared people at the top, administrators and principals, which filters down to the lonely teacher in the classroom.

Too much adult energy that should go into educating gets wasted on inveighing against tests, or finagling to cook the books.

It’s a tragedy and it has to stop.

Not the testing. The lack of courage.

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