Standardized Testing

Note: I teach high achieving students in a high achieving school district. What I’m about to talk about differs from teachers who struggle to get their kids to pass state standards tests. Their struggles are important and mustn’t be marginalized. This is simply meant to show another perspective.

What a perfect time to discuss the dreaded standardized test. My sophomores just spent five straight hours taking their reading and writing STARR/EOC. But actually, I don’t want to discuss that. So much has been said already about the CCSS that I feel anything I say about it will just be a regurgitation of a regurgitation of a regurgitation. Instead, I’d like to take on the grandaddy of them all; the S. A. T.

While I don’t like the time taken away from honest learning in my class for state tests, what I see as a much bigger problem is the SAT. Since it’s roots can be traced back to 1926* and has a larger impact on students’ future goals, it hinders true student achievement more than the CCSS and any test that comes along.

In theory, I have no problem with standardized testing. You want to give a test to see what level students are working at? OK, that’s fair. In it’s early years, the SAT was a test used to see which university a student would succeed in, be the best fit for, or which students were deserving of scholarship money. I have little issue with this.

But the problem with testing is that it influences student and teacher behavior. The pressure is to do well, not to show what you can do. Now everything in academia is a competition; a game to be won. A student’s goal in school is to do well on the test that will get them where they want to be, not where they belong. They prepare for the test, not for the college. Many students see high school simply as a stepping stone to the next level, not an opportunity to learn and grow.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked by parents at open house what we do in class to prepare them for the SAT. I want to scream, “We read and write and think and question and discuss and learn!” But they want to know about pure test prep. Do we study vocabulary? Do we look at testing strategies? Do we practice SAT writing? Parents spend thousands of dollars putting their kids through torturous prep classes where they memorize long lists of vocabulary words, learn the best way to narrow down the answer choices, and what topic to use on their essay.

I say that if we want our students to have a higher vocabulary, let’s have them read more. If we want them to narrow down answer choices, let’s teach them critical thinking. And if we want them to be more sophisticated in their essays, let’s have them read more, think more critically, and write more. However, all of this takes more time and effort than the quick fixes and splinter skills that prep courses offer. Students and parents want to look good for universities, but care less about the real education they need in order to do well once they get there.

The only job I’ve every been let go from was a SAT prep company. After five days of kill and drill, I began to actually work with students, not just to improve testing skills, but intellectual skills. I wasn’t asked to come back and I couldn’t have been happier. I taught some of those students from the test prep business a few years later. They not only remembered me, but thanked me for running the class differently, making it more engaging, and actually teaching them. That wasn’t what the company wanted though.

So, what’s the end result of all this test prep?

The problem is that we have students who treat the rest of their education as test prep. Instead of getting a new group of students every year who are bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to learn, we get students who ask us if what we’re teaching is going to be on the test. They argue with teachers about taking points off, not because they want to improve and get better, but because they want the best GPA possible. Students use their short term memory (cramming) to prepare for assessments instead of knowing the material because they’re going to need it later. They do work for one class in the class before because they’re focused on the immediate, not the long term. They don’t see the value in learning to make them better people, they only want the highest number for their transcript.

Standardized testing has set a tone and created an atmosphere that is detrimental to true learning, making it difficult for teachers who strive against that culture. Colleges and universities need to value test scores less to support the learning high school teachers try to create.

*http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/sats/where/history.html

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