In a staff meeting last week my colleagues and I were informed of the procedures and test security requirements for our upcoming standardized tests. District leaders, principals, teachers and students must all sign documents assuring ethical test administration. Classroom walls must be cleared of any potentially educational material. Do not discuss any test questions or answers for any purposes. Specify and document check-in and check-out procedures for test materials… I wanted to scream out, “What is wrong with us? How can we sit here and calmly agree to carry out these cruelties when every single one of us knows the absurdity? Why don’t we revolt? Why don’t we refuse to subject our children to this sort-and-rank game?”
According to our training documents, the purpose of the assessment is an annual summative measure of student achievement used to evaluate student learning and skills, and a measure of how Iowa students are performing on the Iowa Core. Our district has scheduled these “summative” tests with almost 1/3 of the school year remaining. Assuming that the Iowa Core could be measured via standardized test (higher-level skills cannot), is it fair to test students on what they haven’t learned yet and aren’t even expected to know until the end of the year?
In what 21st century job will the skills needed for standardized test-taking be applicable? I have never in my adult life had to solve any problem by going into a room, using no resources, or consulting no one. On the contrary, real life requires that one use tools and resources, as well as communication and collaboration with others. Additionally, when I read, I can quickly access the meaning, even synonyms and antonyms, of words or phrases with which I am not familiar via simply right-clicking or asking Google. Nothing in my world today requires me to have all information in my head.
If my student knows 50 idioms, but is not familiar with one she encounters on the standardized test, does that mean she doesn’t understand figurative language? If two answers make sense, but “the best” answer my student chooses does not align with that of the test creator’s “best” answer, is my student’s answer less correct? If my student isn’t conditioned to sit for 60 or 120 minutes to take the test, is he less smart? If my student chooses to fill in bubble designs rather than engage in the test, should my job security or wage be impacted? Should my school be identified as a poor performing school because many of the students refuse to take seriously tests they rightly deem irrelevant? The answer to all these questions, of course, is no, but these are the realities.
A quick call to the Iowa Department of Education informed me that our state legislature allocated $2.7 million to the University of Iowa and Pearson to develop and distribute tests to Iowa public schools for the 2018 – 2019 school year. I don’t know about you, but this would be my preferred budget cut. I wonder how much money the testing company spends on legislative lobbying and contributions.
Returning to my first series of questions, the reason most teachers don’t yell out, protest, or refuse to administer standardized tests is matter of financial security. Most teachers need their job. Most have bills to pay and families to support. We have been told, through policy, by legislators and decision makers at the Department of Education what we can and can’t do in our classrooms. People far removed from our students make many of the decisions that dehumanize our children. I am reminded of the Milgram Experiment (1963) which researched how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. Stanley Milgram’s interest in this topic stemmed from a desire to know how easily ordinary people could be influenced in committing atrocities like those of Germans in WWII. It turns out, people easily shift personal responsibility to another in authority. In his article The Milgram Shock Experiment, Saul McLeod summarizes the conclusions found in the experiments as follows.
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and/or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school, and workplace.
What I find disturbing is that in our current educational system, the people in “authority” are not teachers, administrators, or even parents of the children we serve. These “experts” are politicians, philanthropists, and business leaders who, through the very act of having attended school and “turning out pretty well” claim to have the answers to solve educational woes. Their answers tend to simplify and reduce problems to what can be easily measured and quantified yet fail to include social and economic factors which serve as root causes.
In conclusion, I offer a quote by Martin Niemöller as a wake-up call for teachers, parents and students.
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Our children deserve better. How can you speak out? How can you help to derail this inhumane and expensive practice? Please share ideas and comments below.
You are likely thinking this post is about closing the achievement gap that separates low-income and minority children from their peers. It is not. Rather, I am referring the gap between my beliefs about learning and what happens in my 4th grade classroom. In an earlier post I shared some of my beliefs about learning, which do not align closely with traditional school practices. My goal here is to share some of my beliefs, as well as conflicting school structures; provide examples of actions I take that keep me from carrying out my beliefs; and identify possible reasons why the gap exists, and even grows.
To me, learning means taking in new information that I care about because it is relevant to me at a given time, as well as developing skills and dispositions that I deem necessary for my current and/or future situations. I think learning is organic, non-linear, and ongoing. True learning excites me, engages my senses, and compels me to learn even more. In contrast, schools are typically set up in a top-down, linear fashion with hard deadlines and focus on moving through content regardless of whether students are interested. My membership and participation in Change.School, an online community focused on modern learning and schooling, has introduced me to resources that have helped me better articulate my beliefs about learning. The work of both Russell L. Ackoff and Carol Black prove relevant in describing the angst I feel regarding real learning and what school systems inevitably produce.
"Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant." ~ Russell L. Ackoff
In a response to a question about her film “Schooling the World,” Black included the following.
We tend to forget that school itself is a cultural construct which alters traditional life in profound ways. Some of these ways include:
In my quest to make school relevant for my students, I straddle the chasm, planning units that focus on big ideas and provide layers of student choice and agency on one side and trying to comply with state and district mandates on the other. These directives divert time and focus away from potentially engaging learning experiences by requiring specific curriculum, pacing schedules, and/or assessments. The reductionism created by such mandates, at a minimum diminishes the student experience, and possibly, sabotages the more natural learning taking root. I find myself stopping an engaging conversation between students about examples of figurative language in their self-selected books in order to administer an assessment that requires them to read a passage they aren’t interested in and identify the meaning of one specific idiom. If they aren’t familiar with the given idiom, or fail to select the right definition, they supposedly don’t meet the given standard. Situations like this exist in many forms in traditional schools.
Other factors that widen the gap between what I know/believe and what I do in the classroom are the structures of school; time, subject area, and limited physical environment (which I will not address here). Because we continue to organize the day around subjects, a schedule is created to ensure each subject gets its due, with math and reading grabbing an oversized share in the elementary grades. I do believe that students need to learn how to read and develop number sense, but the rush to move quickly through the checklist of “requirements” counter in-depth, more-permanent learning. I find myself taking a “git-r-done” attitude with required math and reading computer programs so that my students can get to more authentic learning of the subjects. What I believe I should do is provide authentic reading and numeracy opportunities first, and not sacrifice valuable time on the artificial learning tasks.
Some of the “gap” results directly from my own inadequacies. For example, I don’t believe that places of learning should be silent or have students move from place to place in straight lines, but too often that is exactly what I require my students to do. I am not on-task every minute of the day, but I have almost unrealistic expectations that my students will be. I value strengths-based learning, but instead, frequently end up focusing on my students’ areas for improvement. Having explored and refined my beliefs about learning has left me with a proverbial blessing and curse. I know what I want for myself and my students but am more acutely aware of the vast distance between those desires and our current realities.
How about you? Do your actions in the classroom mirror your beliefs about learning? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Russell L. Ackoff, Daniel Greenberg (2008). “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track”, p.3, Pearson Prentice Hall
“Schooling the World” film website, https://schoolingtheworld.org/film/