Yesterday was English/Language Arts Testing Day for Texas high school students. The other tests occur in April, but ELA is sooner so that the essays can be graded.
Watching the kids test – and as per regulations unable to read, write, or do anything other than stare at a room full of miserable kids for three hours – I had plenty of time for thinking about standardized high stakes testing. It ain’t good.
I’ve seen too many very bright, literate kids struggle mightily with these tests because their thinking is not standard or their writing is not formulaic. I’ve seen kids who are clearly bound for advanced university work risk graduation because they get caught up on one particular subject. The greatest injustice I’ve seen is reflected in the eyes of Hispanic kids, new to the US, who must, if they are to graduate, pass the test in a new language. I’ve had brilliant students fail math, science, writing, the whole shebang, because they are not yet brilliant in English.
Of course, kids who haven’t opened a book since first grade or done a shred of homework (and have still somehow made it to eleventh grade) will usually fail and rightly so. Sadly, these kids have made choices and have been enabled by a system that passes them along out of fear of parents (who can’t officially be blamed) and politicians (who pass out blame so officially) who make it the teachers’ fault, the schools’ fault. The result is that districts work ever harder to focus on these few days of testing, these meaningless snapshots that tell us so little that we didn’t already know.
Where does that leave us? Students learn nothing from standardized testing. Those who excel in school, who love learning, have it beaten out of them by a yearlong time suck. Those who do poorly in school have all their negative impressions about the purpose of school reinforced by the test that ultimately just verifies what their professional teachers already knew after the first round of assignments came in. Schools are rated and ranked based on their collective performance on these tests that cater to mediocrity, standardized thinking, formulaic writing and rote memorization. It leaves us with the mistaken belief that we are improving our schools when in fact we are discouraging the very thing we should be fostering: love of learning.
Learning should be fun, exciting, and leave a person filled with wonder when looking out at the natural world or the works and story of humanity. We should be teaching kids to ask questions rather than spit out answers. Slavish devotion to test data kills all that. Schools adjust their curricula to match the test, which, let’s remember, is a minimum skills test. What happens when the mandated focus of public schools is minimum skills, when you shoot for a target so low? Sadly, you hit it. Every single time.