President Obama’s proposal to cap external assessments at two percent of student class time is seven years late and two percent too much. It does not end the educational disaster of 14 years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) over-testing. It does not bring back the art and music classes that were lost because they were not tested and therefore did not count. Nor does it address the concerns of growing number of parents who are opting their child out of testing. And it does nothing to re-professionalize teaching.
Every rural Kansan knows that the more time you spend weighing them, the less time you have to feed them. But reducing testing to two percent does not mean that a teacher will have 98 percent of class time for teaching. While the last 14 years of assessments only consumed a week each spring, the months before the test were often filled with pre-tests, practicing for the tests, and every form of coercion imaginable to get students to score higher. With teachers and administrators still under-the-gun to raise test scores, this teaching-to-the-test will continue. Indeed, in most states the current mandated assessments only take up 2.7 percent of class time. But preparation for that test consumes the months beforehand. Reducing the actual testing to two percent of class time does nothing to eliminate the test-prep.
To weigh the effect of NCLB on the teaching profession, consider what it would do to the medical profession if this standardization was imposed on doctors. Previously, physicians treated each patient who came in with unique needs and left with individualized cures. And teachers taught students who came in unique and left unique.
But teachers are restricted to scores on language arts and math. That is like forcing doctors to only use temperature and blood pressure to rate a patient’s health. As a result, patients get no attention to lung and kidney and other problems. And students are shortchanged in art, music, science and social studies.
With temperature and blood pressure the only indicator of health, and heavy penalties on doctors and hospitals that don’t improve those measures, physicians would load their patients up on aspirin and blood pressure medicine. Similarly, teachers have to teach-to-the-past-tests and raise assessment scores. Of course, the overall effect is sicker patients. And despite increased assessment scores, the genuine measurements of student abilities on the NAEP, SAT and ACT go down.
The ACT and SAT have been around far longer than the NCLB testing mania. So why weren’t they just as bad as current assessments? The ACT and old SAT are aptitude tests, not achievement tests. They measured a students aptitude or general ability. Generally, a teacher cannot teach-to-the ACT or SAT tests, so it did not distort their classroom teaching. These tests do not promote memorization and drillwork.
But the government-mandated assessment tests are achievement tests that do respond to memorization and drillwork. State boards of education latch onto standards that profess fanciful creative-thinking goals. But teachers under pressure don’t teach-to-the-standards; they await the release of the first round of tests and they teach-to-that-test.
To treat patients as unique patients, physicians must have the total professional judgement call on what tests to use—period.
And to treat our students as the unique students they are, teachers must regain their professional right to be the sole testers of their students. There should be no external test that requires them to teach-to-that-test. Not two percent, Mr. President. Zero percent.
Ivory tower educationists rail that math and English are universal across the U.S. and therefore the tests must be universal. But teaching is about students as much as about the subject. City kids do not have the same experience base as rural students.
American teachers were unique in the world because we had the professional right and responsibility to teach different students differently. To restore our profession, we must regain that right. Our students come to us unique; they should leave our classrooms unique.
No more standardization means no more external testing.