A Quest for Change
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. encapsulates the fundamentals of education. “The function of education is to teach one to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Learning is a complex process in which the learner constantly changes their internal understanding of how the world around them functions. The learner, most of the time, is unable to come to conclusions on their own and they need guidance from an effective instructor. In a standardized testing era; the system impedes on students’ ability to learn new information and apply it correctly in their lives. The education system stamps on the concept of seeing the world in anything, other than black and white. When dealing with the possibilities of areas in interests, our learning system blurs out artistic or social intelligences, and focuses on socializing through the subjects of mathematics, literature and the sciences. Teachers and administrators are not to blame for this problem. Students are deprived of humanity; in aspect, everyone is seen as a number. The system doesn’t care about how the students got the score, and the effort it took to get there. All that they look at is the number they stand for. The standardized test movement has corrupted the very nature of education and learning by forcing educators to focus on test-taking skills, such as strict memorization, rather than important concepts; the overall desire to want to learn and understand the subject diminishes. These assessments thwart educational growth because their questions are generalized; they instill fear of failure in students; and they hinder efforts by teachers to improve their pedagogical methods. There must be a more effective system whose primary focus is to further grow the intelligences of the youth and to implement a new evaluation method that measures student improvement throughout their educational career.
To fully understand the issue at hand, one must know what it means to be an effective educator. To be an effective teacher, an educator must be open-minded, positive, organized, and resilient. A student that has an ineffective teacher for one year can set the student back up to three years. Traditional teaching styles have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in their curricula. The belief that all students learn at the same pace is simply not true. Each individual student has their own needs and understandings. Some students can understand the material with no problem, others need a push to get their gears turning. There are many different types of students that shine through diverse aspects of learning. For example, a student may understand a chapter of Pre-Calculus simply by reading through their textbook’s chapter. However, their peer may attain the material stronger with a visual, or hands-on approach. Each student has different past experiences that have molded how they learn, therefore, educators must throw away the one-size model and adapt to their student’s needs.
Teachers need to challenge the suppositions of their students for them to develop free thinking. In a middle school classroom, a teacher asked students to read a poem and interpret the first two lines of the poem. The first student gave her answer, but the teacher told her that was not what the author meant. When a second student answered, the teacher reminded her that she was only supposed to interpret the first two lines. When the teacher asked if anyone in the class had other ideas, not one raised their hands. This teacher conveyed to the students that there is one answer and one answer only. And only she knew the correct answer. This learning style hinders creativity, and forces students to think in a black and white matter. After the first two students were told they were wrong, the task became to find out what the instructor thought of the poem, ultimately restricting free thinking.
In a more effective environment, a 9th grade teacher asked his students to evaluate the effects of temperature and muscle movement. The students were given buckets of ice water, gauges to measure finger grip strength, and other various items to help them in their experiments. The teacher then asked a few guiding questions and let the students begin. The teacher walked around the class asking different questions to each group depending on the activities that were being performed. Even when the students were correct in their findings, the teacher challenged these suppositions and asked them to elaborate on how they got to their conclusions. The groups shared their findings with the rest of the class and some students requested to come back later that day and complete their experiments (Brooks). This teacher provided guidance to the students, never giving them the answers and never telling them that they were wrong. These methods used provided the students with a deeper understanding of the material. The student’s interests were high which led them to be more engaged in the lesson and even wanting to return to their experiments at a different time.
The typical American classroom is set up for the teacher to do all the talking. A classroom is no longer revolved around learning and understanding. Moreover, students are restricted to simple memorization, left with no room for creativity or pleasure. Educators jettison information to students and expect them to memorize key points in the lecture. The lectures are almost always in-line with the textbook used for that class. In these classrooms, students learn only one view to complex issues, inhibiting students to view the issue from all aspects of the spectrum. For example, Christopher Columbus is often taught as a respected explorer in search for a new world. The idea that Columbus enslaved thousands of Natives and eradicated most of them by bringing new diseases over, is rarely taught in the classroom (Simmons). Educators must provide students with broad concepts to ponder so that they pose their own questions.
Students must take charge in their own learning. When an instructor stands in front of the classroom and lectures for the whole class period, they are essentially giving students the answers without a clear meaning. Allowing the students to interact with one another provides an effective route to the lead objective. As previously stated, all students bring their own experiences with them to the classroom. In one classroom, students were put in groups of five or six to discuss artifacts from Egypt. As the students examined the artifact, they discussed the possibilities of the different functions these objects may possess. The students were understanding the main function of the object because they were all bringing their past experiences to the light. Essentially, these students were teaching each other, working together toward a common goal.
Evaluation of student learning is difficult to measure through pen-and-paper assessments. Some students become anxious during a high-stakes test, fearing that they will fail. On the other hand, simple interaction with a student in the classroom setting is a more effective way to measure what the student understands about the lesson. In the state of New Jersey, students that graduate in the year 2021 and beyond must achieve passing scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) English 10 and Algebra portions to graduate (NJDOE). The teachers must prepare students for these exams, and by doing so they align their curriculum with concepts most likely to appear on the assessments. The students are just memorizing key concepts to increase their test taking skills.
Traditional teaching styles are a method of the past and have proved to be ineffective. Educators must shift their teaching methods to a more effective standard. Students should be encouraged to deeply understand the material instead of memorizing terms. This allows students to apply learned concepts in the classroom to their everyday lives. Their backgrounds form who they are as a learner and educators need to adapt their curriculum to challenge student supposition and promote creativity along with free thinking. As an educator, it is their job to guide them to the answer. A third-grade student wrote to his teacher, “You are like the North Star for the class. You don’t tell us where to go, but you help us find our way (Brooks).”
Standardized testing in the United States predates the Civil War in 1861. Once a system that evaluated student intelligence, has transformed into a politically-driven method of evaluating teachers and schools which results in a plethora of rewards and punishments based on test results (Alcocer). States determine whether a school is fulfilling the responsibility of effective teaching or not by the results of generalized pen-and-paper tests in which all students are expected to complete, regardless of their learning capabilities. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, mandates that schools measure and account for the performance of their students. The law also mandates schools to administer standardized tests and report the results to the state. Based on the test results, harsh sanctions are put in place for those school districts that do not meet the “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP; a numerical value that defines student performance (Klein).
Standardized assessments are created from an outside source other than the school that is administering them (Kohn). Many educators and experts work tirelessly to develop these assessments, but what they do not understand is that each student has their own method of learning. Test developers do not witness the learning process of an individual in a classroom. So how can they truly be aware of how each student learns? They cannot. Teachers interact with students every single day, and they know and understand what methods positively impact their students.
Standardized means all students in the state must take the same assessment. The questions do not evaluate the skills of the students simply because the questions are vague (ConnectUS). To effectively learn, the mind must be challenged. Basic skills questions do not appropriately measure a student’s learning. When developing these tests, an important factor is not considered; each student learns at a different pace. Every brain is different from the next, it absorbs information differently for everyone. Different students implement their own learning method that individually caters to them. In the current classroom model, all students learn the same thing at the same pace. If one student falls behind, they must catch up because the rest of the class is moving on with the curriculum. While the rest of the class moves on, this child still does not understand the material but is required to move through the course. This overwhelming environment and panic negatively impacts the learning community.
Another critique on standardized testing, emphasizes the belief that tests are by procedure for the sole purpose of holding schools and teachers accountable for their student’s performance. Teachers abandon their original curriculum to prepare for the high-stake test. The school environment is shifting their main focus on their employees, not the learning rate of their students. Spending more time on test related subjects, affects the time spent on other creative concentrations like social studies and the arts (Simmons). Some school districts give their students assessments regarding the more creative subjects, although not a common practice. The questions are usually compiled with vague facts and definitions. As Kohn stated, “[Standardized tests] aren’t designed to tell who has learned to think like a scientist or a historian; they’re designed to tell who can recite the four stages of mitosis or the four freedoms mentioned by Franklin Roosevelt.” In other words, they damage the true intention of education by limiting creativity and refraining from teaching important life skills.
Subsequently, the fact that these tests are timed, raises questions about whether these assessments accurately reflect the learning of the students. It does not matter to the tests if this student excels in the classroom, standardized tests require memorization skills. Does this mean this student unintelligible? Absolutely not; there is a significant difference between being smart and knowing a lot of stuff. One student could have a photographic memory and score high on the exam, but does not fully understand the concepts she was taught. On the other hand, a student might perform exceptionally on class projects/assignments, and receive a low score on the exam. Yet, the system expects students to recall all the information they have learned over the year and apply this loose knowledge with a time limit involved. The stress of standardized testing falls upon the student as they fear they will not pass. Furthermore, no student should take a high-stakes test in an anxious state. The results of a test, where a student “blanks” because of test anxiety, do not reflect the student’s true performance; thus, creating a blurred snapshot of that students’ academic achievements.
Because of the punishments and rewards that come with the accountability program, teachers become heavily focused on improving their students test scores. Teachers spend countless hours obsessing over the content of the tests; further distracting from other subject areas. Any student will admit, their teacher has told them for multiple choice questions, “there are four choices that all may seem to be the right answer, but only one is the true answer.” “Don’t be too creative. Don’t think too hard. Only give them what they want. Pace yourself (Simmons).” These phrases are becoming too frequent and they hinder the creativity and critical thinking necessary for effective learning. Creative children are stumped when they see the generalized questions on the assessments. It teaches them that there is only one viable answer and there is no room for creativity. Educator Bill Ayers evaluates standardized testing, “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure, and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.” High-stakes exams do not value the critical skills needed to be successful in the world. Promoting creativity allows people to pose thought provoking questions to enhance their knowledge of the world. Perhaps, instead of teaching key terms and definitions, an educator should teach students how to make rightful decisions on their own. These standards stray far from the primary purpose of the educational platform.
These tests are administered to thousands of students. It is unlikely that every single student can be present on test day. Under these circumstances, it is counterintuitive to believe that a child can demonstrate their full capabilities of what they have learned. A student in South Carolina responded to standardized tests by saying, “All they care about is the test; they don’t care if we learn anything (Simmons).” Learning success should be valued more than success on tests.
A handful of students do not show much concern for the tests and do not fully understand the consequences. Students fill out the bubbles on the exam sheet so that they form a picture, thus getting the answers marked incorrect. These students are then placed in a low-level class for the following years of their educational career. Apparently, results from a single exam are enough evidence to show the full capabilities of students, even when they lack care for the assessments (Kohn). The educational future of children relies heavily on these exams. If they do not perform adequately, they will be placed in remedial classes. The nature of this situation causes an uneasy feeling; misplacing these students who do not belong in the slower paced classes, can deter them from their route of success.
Unfortunately, standardized testing is the easiest form of holding teachers accountable for their students. Test results are published in newspapers, and even real estate listings provide the most recent test scores. Valuing these numerical values of knowledge has become the norm in the US. It is agreed that teachers should absolutely be held accountable, but exams that measure the intelligence in one day just seem ineffective. With advancements in technology today, it is possible to implement a method of measuring what students learn at the same time, hold educators accountable for their teaching. Each student learns in different ways; effective learning occurs when educators cater to individual students rather than the class in whole. A large database can be created with individual portfolios for each student. This way, educators can clearly see how a student has performed academically throughout their educational career. This method values each student as one individual instead of the entire student body which, in return, allows teachers to adapt to each child. The improvement over the course of one year would be more valuable to educators and school districts rather than the results from a test only given twice a year. With this idea, the journey of learning proves to be more important than the end results. The instructor can create projects and in-class assignments to highlight creativity and free thinking.
Politics and money are much too involved in education today. By using high-stakes testing to hold teachers accountable for their students, and to reward and punish them based on test results, the politically-motivated system distracts educators from teaching creative subjects that students may be interested in. Students who excel, use past experiences to critically view the world surrounding them. Standardized testing interrupts that creativity. This current system must be abandoned before another student gets left behind by the “test-prep” teaching model mandated by No Child Left Behind.
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Alcocer, Paulina. “History of Standardized Testing in the United States.” National Education Association. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.
Brooks, Martin. Brooks, Jacqueline. “The Courage to Be Constructivist.” The Constructivist Classroom. vol. 57, no. 3, 1999, pp. 18-24.
http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov99/vol57/num03/The-Courage-to-Be-Constructivist.aspx. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
Brooks, Martin, and Jacqueline Brooks. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms. Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. 1993. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/199234/chapters/Honoring-the-Learning-Process.aspx.
Herman, Joan L., and Shari Golan. “Effects of Standardized Testing on Teachers and Learning–Another Look.” (1990).
Klein, Alyson. “No Child Left Behind: An Overview.” Education Week. Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, 2015. Accessed 29 Nov. 2017.
Kohn, Alfie. The case against standardized testing: Raising the scores, ruining the schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.
“New Jersey State Assessments.” State.nj.us. NJ Department of Education. http://www.state.nj.us/education/assessment/
Simmons, Nicola. “(De)grading the Standardized Test: Can Standardized Testing Evaluate Schools?” Education Canada. vol. 44, no. 3, 2004. Accessed 29 Nov. 2017.