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Monday, June 16, 2014

High-Stakes Testing: Sowing a Barron Field for Teaching

The whole world seems to have gone crazy with testing.  Pearson and the likes surely must love it.  And, if you can beat down career teachers by using their students' test scores as a weapon against them, I guess it is all the more attractive to those who would kill public-school teachers, close their schools and reopen them for personal profit.  I hate excessive testing.  I hate the prep that must accompany it.  And, I abhor the ends for which it is being used.  

Test prep will never be an effective use of classroom time.  In days of yore, high-school students knew it was their responsibility to study for Regents exams.  Test grades were used merely to measure students.  Having great teachers did not guarantee great test scores.  If it had, whole classes would have sunk or swam together.  They never did.  For those who cared to do well, Red Barron's books (not to be confused with the Red Baron!) were best buddies against the backdrop of warm June afternoons at home.  Very little test prep occurred in schools. 
In the City, teachers are directed to test prep today.  They must test prep for dear life.  Over time, the amount of prep, its importance and the money spent upon it have only grown.  Teachers are exhorted to begin Regents review by the first day of May.  Since the Regents tend to ask the same points from year to year, students benefit from multiple-choice-based drills;  In effect, they just need to learn what the Regents wants them to know to game the system.  In the past, I helped students prepare, viewing it as a good deed to help them along in life.  Now, I am expected to Regents review to save my own pants and those of my school.  And I resent it.
Effective Regents review is not effective teaching, no matter what anyone would like to believe.  This is the price we pay for a system which demands accountability.  If students don't do well on the test, they have failed; the teacher, too, has now failed, and so, too, has the school.  Repercussions ensue.  During the Bloomberg administration, buildings would be closed and teachers fired.  Administrators given the boot. 
In this type of system, teachers are encouraged to water down knowledge to the basest Regents elements and teach to a limited set of ideas.  Some teachers will become year round Stanley Kaplanesque lackeys because this is all the system asks of them.  Even if the Common Core makes insidiously more difficult tests and raises the stakes to a new level, it doesn't mean classrooms won't soon be learning to game the new test-based standards.  There can be no perfect test.   Students may not learn to question, think creatively, build social skills or address current issues because these things are not tested and cannot be effectively tested.
We are prodded to enslave young minds to the whims of elite test makers, accountable to no one it seems, who enrich themselves at our expense.  They help decide what knowledge and skills will be omitted from the tests and which will make or break schools.  They are demi-gods and that which cannot be measured might as well be a curse upon mankind.  Even more frightening, in this age of test-based accountability these tests are politically designed as loaded weapons aimed straight at public-school teachers, their schools and their unions.  

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