There Must Be a Test for That

There Must Be a Test for That

Well, the kids and I just got back from a week of Spring Break in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and for those of you who care, we had a lovely time, thank you very much.  We visited Mt. Rushmore, walked through one of the world’s largest underground caves, and drove through the awe-inspiring Badlands.  We had a blast and, despite some close calls, did not have any arrests for felonious assault arising from backseat sibling confrontations.  It was one of those rare vacations that was both fun and educational, and where each person in the car could honesty say they enjoyed the experience.  But then we had to come back.  And for my poor 3rd and 5th grader respectively that meant two straight weeks of standardized testing.

Yes, you heard me correctly: Two straight weeks of standardized testing.  That’s ten straight days of lost instructional time, all at a time of year when kids may actually still be listening.  Oh and did I mention that they have also greatly reduced the amount of student class days to just 169 from 180 when we were kids?  And this doesn’t even include the snow days for a district so soft that they actually called off school last year on a day with no precipitation because the mid teens temperature was too just too cold to have school (at which point the entire state of Minnesota called and asked the district to turn in its Man Card).  Now I’m not trying to be the angry old man yelling at teens to get off his lawn, but is it unreasonable to ask that my kids occasionally go to school to actually learn something every once in a while?

In doing research for this column (yes, I sometimes even do research for this column!), I counted no less than thirteen different standardized tests administered throughout the year at my kids’ school (ok, that’s admittedly not a heck of a lot of research).  In fact, the district even has a calendar on their website listing all of the tests because, let’s face it, there’s no darn way that someone could seriously keep track of all these stupid things.  But here comes the best part of all this nonsense: even the administrators don’t believe in them!

That’s right- in a recent survey by the Center on Education Policy, 60% of district leaders suggest that their students spend far too much time taking standardized tests.  But oh the absurdist hilarity doesn’t stop there because in that same group of surveyed school leaders, 75% of them said their districts used test-preparation strategies such as reviewing released items or administering practice tests, with a full third of them suggesting that their test prep alone accounted for a week or more of instructional class time.  And we wonder why our kids aren’t learning anything?  How could they?  They’re too busy getting ready to take their PARCC tests.

So why would administrators give these tests even though they don’t believe in them, especially when more and more data confirms that this rigorous testing does not enhance scores anyways?  They do so because they are complicit in a system that rewards based on testing, and like a politician kissing ass to every PAC imaginable, these folks desperately want the tax dollars that come with the numbers they can produce.  By financially incentivizing school performance based upon these tests, we have made educators a slave to meaningless rote memorization and 20th-century knowledge instead of allowing them to develop students’ critical thinking skills that will define their adaptability and potential for success in a 21st-century world.

That wasn’t the vision of the well-intentioned folks in the Bush administration who crafted the No Child Left Behind legislation that came to exemplify W.’s presidency in the early 2000’s.  That educational model was formulated upon a singular premise: accountability, an idea which in and of itself does not seem so bad, but whose implementation proved disastrous.  The problem was two-fold.  On the one hand, you were taking the task of student assessment away from professional educators who are well-versed in tailoring measurements of student success and handing it instead to outsiders who knew they wanted to hold teachers and administrators accountable but to what standard they had very little idea.  That would be like assuming that a real estate mogul who made his fortune with questionable financial practices would somehow be good for leading the country.  Oh right, I forgot….

The other mistake these folks made was in basing their assessment for schools’ performances on the Common Core State Standards, which is predicated upon knowledge acquisition over skills.  These tests measure what a student knows not what they know how to do.  It focuses on regurgitated memorization rather than acquired skills.  The problem is that in a 21st-century world where anything humanity has ever discovered is available online at the click of a button, memorization has become a fundamentally outdated model for educational practice.  What the 21st century will require is not information retrieval but critical problem solving.  Unfortunately, because our schools are financially pressured to teach to a ridiculously flawed test, our students are wasting their time preparing for Trivia Night at the local pub while their peers in other nations are developing the vital skills that will help lead the way into the future.  Shoot, we might as well be offering our kids classes in blacksmithing and haberdashery.

So what we end up with is a series of tests that students hate, parents don’t understand, and schools don’t believe in.  But the schools need the test scores to procure funding so they compel students to take them.  Meanwhile, many parents excuse their students from the test knowing that the results help schools not students, thus skewing the data right from the start.  And all this is done in the name of a failed education policy that everyone gave up on years ago.  Which just goes to prove the old adage: You can teach a student to take a test, but not if you teach them to think for themselves.

Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works.  Read his blog TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at