‘At the heart of this testing regime is fear and silence’

Published: 4/14/2019 9:41:49 AM

When I ask people what they want for their children most people say they want their children to be happy, and to be good, decent people. They value their children being creative, persistent, flexible, effective problem solvers, and able to work with others. They want their children to grow into people who will be responsible members of families, good husbands or wives or partners, good parents, neighbors, active and responsible community members. And most of all, they want their children to be healthy, to grow up able to realize their potential.

When I ask educators what they want for their students the list is very similar, though most would add that they want their students to deeply understand the material, to be able to think critically about it, and to transfer what they have learned in class to their lives in the wider world. They also want their students to find joy in the process of learning, to appreciate the power of being able to gather information that helps them to answer their questions or to address their concerns.

None of them has high scores on high-stakes standardized tests on their lists, and yet that is now the only thing that matters in our K-12 educational system. Fear of punishment for test failure has fundamentally shifted our country’s approach to education such that many schools have become test preparation factories, at the expense of our children’s education and health, and has removed much of the life and joy that is essential to developing life-long learners.

There are so many things wrong with this test-centered approach it’s hard to know where to begin, but I will list a few fundamental concerns I have about this test-heavy approach.

High-stakes testing harms many of our children by labeling them as failures, no matter their work during the school year or the reasons for their struggles with the tests. They may be taking the tests in their second or third language, they may have special learning needs, struggling with health or family issues. Their learning strengths may be in areas not tested; it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is their score on the tests, with no excuses.

Year-long test preparation crowds out other subjects such as social studies, hands-on science, time spent in the arts, music and other high-interest areas that keep students engaged and in school. The irony is that a focus on high-stakes testing leaves students learning less, knowing less, and caring less about what they are learning.

The tests and test preparation are expensive and our schools are already underfunded in Massachusetts by close to a billion and a half dollars. The idea of underfunding schools by that amount and then holding them accountable anyway is hypocritical and blames the victim.

Test results correlate closely with family and community income, which is to say what the tests are really measuring are ZIP codes. Those who live in wealthier circumstances score higher on the tests than do children living in poverty. They say little or nothing about the teaching and learning going on in the schools.

There is no agreement on what schools should be teaching and so having a one-size-fits-all assessment is ludicrous. And there is no evidence to show that this obsession with testing has led to better education even assuming we know what that means. None.

So what to do. First, recognize that teachers are not talking about their concerns because they are afraid. They will be punished if they talk about their concerns. At the heart of this testing regime is fear and silence. Have conversations with those who are willing to talk, away from school if necessary. Register your concerns with teachers, administrators, with local politicians.

Consider opting your children out of taking the tests. It is your legal right, as parents or guardians to make decisions about whether your child takes the tests, and there are legal protections for doing so; your child can not be punished for that decision. Consider gathering with other concerned parents and family members to hold forums on the topic. Learn more about high-stakes testing and the harm it is doing. Check on websites like fairtest.org, or New York State Alliance for Public Education https://www.nysape.org/ for information on resisting the tests. The health and well being of our children and of public education depends on our taking action.

Doug Selwyn is a resident of Greenfield.


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