Testing Season

HOW PUNITIVE HIGH STAKES TESTING DUMBS DOWN THE CLASSROOM

An edited version of the following essay appeared in the Fort Myers News Press

It’s mid-April, so let the testing season begin. This is the time of year when parents watch helplessly as their children become increasingly anxious. Teachers lose valuable instruction time as students are pulled out from their classes for testing. The teacher’s valuable time may be spent staring at the tops of students’ heads for hours on end while proctoring exams. The end of the school year, set aside for testing, is the educational equivalent of the dry season. 

This is, according to so education deformers reformers, the price we must pay if we want quality education for our children. After all, teachers have no incentive to provide quality instruction if there are no tests keeping them honest. Something must be done to force teachers–you know what they say about those who teach–to do their jobs. At least, that’s what the purveyors of these tests, and the profits they confer on publishing companies, tell us.

They are wrong. Now that the testing season has begun in earnest parents must understand just how the regimen of high stakes testing dumbs down the curriculum and forces unto their children a second-rate education. To tell this story I draw on my own experience as high school history teacher.

First, testing thins the curriculum. The history of the United States, for instance, is rich and complex. Regardless, my colleagues and I have what amounts to  about 80 days to teach everything from the Civil War through today¹. Now this can be done in a number of ways, but for the sake of our End of Course Exams (EOCs) it is critical that teachers not waste time on subject matter that is not on the test. So teachers thin the curriculum in order to cover the essentials–essentials determined by the publishing companies, not the teachers themselves. 

Case in point, when my colleagues and I were going over the Checkpoints relevant to U.S. imperial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th century, we found that only three topics were tested. The Alaska Purchase, the acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War. Yes, subjects like the Open Door with China, the Panama Canal and the Roosevelt Corollary are on the Academic Plan, but are not a focus of the EOC. What’s more, critical elements like the Anti-Imperialist League, the de facto war in the Philippines and U.S. interventions in Central America and the Caribbean are not even in the Academic Plan.

Secondly, testing sacrifices higher order thinking skills. A subject like history should not be reduced to an act of trivial pursuit in the interests of instructing students on how to fill in the correct bubbles on a multiple choice exam. To best assess a student’s ability to think historically requires extended writing on open-ended questions. Don’t let anyone fool you. There is no such thing as a multiple choice exam that measures higher order thinking. The minute prefabricated answers are limited to four options, higher order thinking is lost. Multiple choice tests are, however, cheaper to grade. Consequently, students are driven to know a bunch of historical stuff without being taught how to critically analyze historical data.

Take, for instance, this test prep item that one of my colleagues brought to my attention. The question was, What was the turning point of the Civil War? A. Fort Donaldson. B. Vicksburg. C. Gettysburg, D. Antietam. Do you know the answer? No. You don’t know THE answer because, a singular, one-true answer depends on certain assumptions being made about what constitutes a turning point and how one is measuring the strategic value of a particular event, let alone a battle. Now the answer in the test booklet was C. Gettysburg, but that is difficult to defend given the fact that Vicksburg fell within twenty-four hours of Lee’s withdrawal from Gettysburg. So how is one to differentiate the value of Vicksburg over Gettysburg? Could it be that the simultaneous Union victories better explain a turning point than any single battle?

A better question is: What was the turning point of the Civil War? Support your answer with at least three specific historical facts. The student may or may not come up with Gettysburg. She may, perhaps, suggest that Antietam was a better turning point because it discouraged foreign intervention on behalf of the Confederacy and gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, vouching a moral cause to the Union mission. She might even suggest that the turning point wasn’t a battle at all, but rather Secretary Seward’s diplomatic achievements or the issuance of Greenbacks while Confederate currency could gain no credibility. Regardless, the one correct answer is less important than the student’s ability to use historical thinking skills to address a prompt.

On the other hand, the Academic Plan only allows one week to cover the whole of the Civil War. So, Gettysburg it is. Move on.

Finally, testing doesn’t only stifle student innovation, but also the teacher’s creativity. One of my colleagues has a great curriculum on the construction of the Panama Canal. This lesson plan incorporates history with biology and medicine, physics, engineering, politics and economics. It demonstrates that history really is an interdisciplinary subject. I have lesson plans on the Manhattan Project, the Red Scares, music of the 1960’s, to name a few, that often remain in the box unused as the subject area does not appear on the exam and I cannot waste valuable instruction time on topics that might be of interest. Sometimes I break one out, but know that I’ll have to squeeze other topics together for the sake of coverage. Students are denied the benefit of seeing how their teachers creatively apply their own craft. History, in this case, becomes nothing more than a practice in trivial pursuit. It is not understood as a vital, creative, innovative and critical discipline.

The examples that I’ve applied to history are equally true for other disciplines like science, literature, art. That which any discipline has to offer must be subsumed to simple coverage of stuff that is meaningless out of context. Students regimented by standardization and high stakes testing are denied the depth and quality that the practice of an academic discipline offers. This, in my mind, is the cruellest form of theft.

______________________________

  1. My district uses a block schedule. We see each class every other day for periods of eighty-three minutes or so. In a school year of 180 days, this leaves 90 instructional days, or 125 hours of instructional time per year. However, when you factor in state mandated exams, district exams and other interruptions to the school day, that brings instructional time down. Then you must factor in the fact that End of Course Exams are rarely ever held at the end of the course. This school year ends on June 10, but the EOC for my subject was conducted on May 19th, fifteen days, or about 7 instructional days, before the end of the year.

 

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