Testing . . . testing . . . are we having fun yet?


Our students are in the midst of the annual standardized testing marathon. When they ask their teachers why they have to take them they are informed that the results are an indication of how well they are doing in school, and that their teachers, school principal, and the district superintendent need to know what changes to make in order to improve student learning. Unfortunately, the issue of whether or not the time and money dedicated to the testing process is well spent is far from clear. (Google “standardized testing debate.”)

While teachers and administrators agree that we must measure student progress and report it to students, parents, school administration, district administration, and the state, the picture gets a bit murky when it comes to being accountable to Washington; indeed, many think that the federal government is a far too distant entity to even be involved in setting education policy that affects so many millions of families, while contributing only a pittance to local district coffers.

We have seen a major change over the last several decades with regard to the delivery of education, one that has shifted the emphasis in the classroom from content-based learning to process-based learning. It is more student driven, tailored to the individual, “hands-on,” and project oriented; it is often called “discovery learning.” There are some who have backed away from, or resisted, this trend, including teachers and parents who are concerned about the decline in mastery of basic skills and raw knowledge. This has, in fact, given rise to more than a few charter schools bent on re-establishing a conservative approach to education, which is characterized by “delivery” of knowledge as opposed to “discovering” for a purpose. One result of the shift to this new approach is that the operation of the classroom has drastically changed. Textbooks have given way to other materials and tools, including myriad technological ones. The teacher has become a facilitator.

So, what’s the problem? Standardized tests look much like they always have; they are designed to measure knowledge.They take none of the factors that predict success in life into account. Many questions are necessarily out of context, which can be very confusing to test takers,  especially, perhaps, English Language Learners. There is little effort devoted to providing constructed response questions, and less and less money budgeted for meaningful evaluation of them. In short, yesterday’s tests are given to today’s students. As a result, we spend a lot of time “teaching to the test” rather than testing to the way we teach; in addition, there is evidence that some “non-academic” courses are given short shrift as districts and schools devote more and more time to an ever-narrowing band of academic subjects and skills.

Reasonable people can disagree about what our classrooms should look like and what should be taught therein, but ultimately it is the responsibility of the state departments of education and state legislatures to set the course; that’s where the money and power are. MDE (Minnesota Department of Education) staff oversee teacher-training institutions; they test, certify, and license teachers; they create academic standards; and they devise standardized tests. (The MCA III is being developed now, to be in place in spring 2011.)

I believe Minnesota is well equipped to undertake its own brand of reform. We need to focus on better teacher training and teacher-friendly curricula that address both knowledge and process; we must require of our students a much higher level of competence in basic skills and performance on tests; we need to support organizations like the Minnesota Writing Project, which has quietly been training and supporting language arts teachers for the last twenty years, and which will now be required to compete for a federal pot of money along with other organizations.

Let’s stop kowtowing to the Feds. Arne Duncan and his boss don’t get it. They think that we can get better results by banging states and educators over the head until we “succeed.” Well, I, for one, would rather cast my lot with the people of Minnesota. I don’t like the notion that we are, along with all the other states, moribund when it comes to education reform, and that only by racing after Arne’s carrot will we be able to pull ourselves up out of the swamp of ignorance and rise to the top. As far as I’m concerned, Arne Duncan can take his carrot and, well, you know.

Next time: Taking a closer look at teacher licensing