UPDATE: The testing debate comes to the Ausable Valley Central School District tonight at 7 pm. For more information, check out this Facebook page.
A month or so ago, I took part in a public conversation about standardized testing in Saranac Lake. I went away with a lot of questions and doubts, not only about testing but about the debate itself.
A growing number of parents and kids are opting out of these tests, as the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported last month.
This week, on Facebook, I came across this video, which seemed like a great summary of the anti-testing, pro-teacher-liberation point of view.
I urge you to watch it before reading the rest of this essay.
This teacher raises important questions. We need to think deeply about how public education does and doesn’t work in America, and how tests do or do not move us forward.
But I wonder if the backlash against No Child Left Behind and standardized testing isn’t overlooking a couple of big issues.
First, public education has been troubled for a long time – long before these tests moved to the center of our K-12 system.
My own teachers, particularly in high school, ranged from disinterested to mediocre, with occasional flashes of real talent and engagement.
For all the occasional bright spots, there was little accountability, little passion or creativity, and I came away from my public education in a state that can only be described as substantially ignorant.
When I traveled to Germany as an exchange student, I found that I was substantially behind my peers in literally every subject, including English. (Having a nine year old German kid correct your grammar is no fun, let me tell you.)
I went to school in the 1970s and 1980s, long before standardized testing rewired public education.
This teacher also speaks — as teachers did at the event in Saranac Lake — about their desire to nurture well-rounded, holistic citizens. And there’s a big place for that in schools, to be sure.
But there are a lot of institutions in American life — from the family to churches to after school art programs — that can help create well-rounded citizens.
There’s only one place where kids absolutely must learn the practical humanistic skills — a great command of English, math skills, sciences, a foreign language — needed to function in a complex, post-industrial society.
And it seems to me that we need some metric, some measuring stick, to make sure that’s happening.
In the current debate, there is also a lot of earnest talk about how stressful tests are for kids and that teachers have to teach the things — including boring, ho-hum things — that will be on the test.
Again, fair enough.
But it seems worthwhile to think out loud a bit about the fact that life itself is stressful. And oftentimes we have to do a lot of work — even boring work — before we overcome obstacles.
There are also frequent tests in adult life, some the actual check-the-box tests that are required to gain promotions and opportunities. But also those constant, stressful informal hurdles that we must prepare for and overcome.
There’s also something to be said for the idea that we need some uniform, measurable standards for education.
Yes, it’s cool to think about really talented individual teachers uncorking unique, brilliant lesson plans year after year, lighting up rooms with their inspired lesson plans.
But this is the real world. There have to be supports in place for average teachers, or tired teachers, or burned out teachers that help them get through the day and the year.
And we also need kids in terrible school districts to have a shot at a decent education that at least resembles the education that kids get in rich, high quality schools.
Finally, I think it’s reasonable to point out that while tests may be a highly imperfect method of evaluating teacher performance, teachers’ unions have declined to come up with a method that is any better.
It’s romantic to think that teachers are all as wonderful as the woman in that video. But the truth is that there are a lot of teachers in our schools who shouldn’t be there.
Unfortunately, our testing systems have been dragged into that debate in clumsy, sometimes painful ways, as a way to weed out the dead weight.
One solution is to scrap tests and go back to a world where there is little true accountability, where kids get stuck for years with people who don’t belong in classrooms.
Or we could make tests less important by coming up with better, fairer, more helpful ways of identifying bad teachers and moving them along to different careers.
I can say honestly that this isn’t one of those debates where I’m forced to pretend a kind of journalistic neutrality. I am truly, deeply agnostic on these questions.
My son Nicholas, a high school junior, has brought home some standardized test questions that were laughably stupid and obviously culturally biased.
If we do stick with testing as a pillar of secondary education, we obviously have to make them better, less fussy, fairer and more meaningful.
There probably also needs to be more flexibility built in that allows brilliant teachers to be, well, brilliant, while giving more average educators the right kind of support and framework.
So there’s my bit of hand-wringing and thinking out loud. Let me end with some questions. What do you think about the testing regimen in your kids’ school? Should they be scrapped?
If so, do we need other methods to achieve the quality and accountability you want for your children?