Another voice: New generation testing creates 'test ghetto'

March 24, 2012

I am sitting in the testing lab in the spring of 2012 with my Freshman English class, one of five that I teach.

All week (three full class sessions), students have been reading passages and multiple-choice questions. This is one of three such tests they will take this year and every year in reading, writing and math. With the imposition of Core Curriculum Standards, they will take many more tests in multiple subject areas.

Education has become a numbers game. The use of statistical and web-based testing software to measure educational outcomes, progress and proficiency is established. The goal is for teachers, students and schools to be evaluated and ranked based on these test outcomes.

Tests have become the only measure that really matters for high-stakes educational decisions. Graduation from high school, placement in test prep classes, school funding and job security are increasingly based on multiple-choice tests. More and more resources are allocated for this purpose.

The new education gurus are statisticians, software developers, test designers, curriculum developers and technocrats. They tell us what to teach, when to teach it and by default, how to teach. All decisions are based on data, because that is measurable.

Educational progress now largely depends on what can be counted. This is the corporate business model that has been established for public education. Private schools for the privileged, and charter schools, are largely left untouched by testing mandates.

For public schools, a new generation of tests is being developed to poke and prod students into achievement. The costs, benefits, risks and consequences are approved by our educational and political elites. The buzzwords of top-down education reform are worth examining.

"Accountability" means punitive consequences for administrators, teachers, students and schools that don't make sufficient statistical gains. "Measurable" means replacing human judgment with mechanical and digital thumbs-up or thumbs-down assessment. "Achievement" means reducing the social and personal challenges of human beings into a multiple test format.

In 2000, Sen. Paul Wellstone delivered a speech to the Teacher's College at Columbia University. He said, "The abuse of tests for high-stakes purposes has subverted the benefits tests can bring. Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for graduation, promotion, tracking and ability grouping is not fair and has not fostered greater equality or opportunity for students."

In 2012, that is exactly what we are doing to students in public education, except that instead of a single standardized test we have a "battery" of such tests.

Not all testing is bad. Some is useful and important. We can gain important information about students and teaching from tests. My concern is the abuse of tests, when high-stakes educational decisions are based on a test score.

The new generation of web-based adaptive tests has many proponents, but they are not my students. Likely, they are not people who spend their day in a classroom. Probably, they are not the parents of students learning English or the parents of students with disabilities.

The impact of these tests goes unnoticed by the parents of the most privileged students because the tests cause barely a ripple in their future plans.

College-bound students are not the victims of the tests. Students who have had access to healthy food, books, healthcare, summer vacations, tutors, conversations with adults, an extensive wardrobe, support for homework, ballet lessons and lacrosse clubs are not the casualties of testing. It is the students who are most at-risk and most challenged who are the collateral damage of testing.

Other casualties of testing are teacher-made curriculum, elective classes, challenging inquiry-based classes for all students, art, music, field trips, recess, academic freedom and local decision-making. Welcome to the test ghetto, where segregation and test abuse are the norm.

This is not the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that the No Child Left Behind law was supposed to erase. This is the hard bigotry of the test ghetto, where students who don't pass tests are denied the rights and benefits of a humane and human education.

Mark S. Reynolds teaches at Hood River Valley High School.

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