Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Side Effects of Standardized Testing

By Howard Seeman, Ph.D.

Proponents of using standardized tests are pushing these as if they are good “medicine” for the delivery of a better education for our students. “Standardized testing has become central to education policy in the United States. After dramatically expanding in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, testing has been further enshrined by the Obama administration’s $3.4 billion “Race to the Top” grants.” [Truthout(http://www.truth-out.org), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Test Scorer, Dan DiMaggio, 12/1 /2010.]

This push of standardized tests not only receives funding from the federal government, but from billionaire private sources: the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate, Ford, Hewlett, Annenberg, Milken, to name just a few – to decide: funding charter schools, merit pay, firing teachers and closing schools. But, besides using these tests, private foundations should not be setting public policy! Also, these measures often have 20 to 30 percent error rates. [Who’s Bashing Teachers and Public Schools and What Can We Do About It?” Stan Karp, Spring 2011, Rethinking Schools.]

Standardized tests are not a valid measure of agood education. Instead, they usually just predict future school success, which is a tautological begging of the question about “a good education”. And besides: standardized testing has many “side effects” harmful to our children, teachers, administrators, schools, and our whole society. Let me explain.

Standardized tests do not test whether our students are getting a good education.

A good education is, and was supposed to be [as Socrates wisely taught] for living the “good life” before we die; and as W.E.B. Du Bois rightly prescribes: for learning to be a valuable citizen of society. [Du Bois, W.E.B., The Souls of Black Folk(Boston: Bedford Books, 1903.]

But, we have redoubled our effort while we have lost sight of these goals. Instead, our goals are: better cognition, objective descriptions, calculating, deducing, counting, compiling facts, predicting, to control things, to have more material wealth, , to be more efficient at all of these, faster and faster. However, though the “good life” and being “a valuable citizen” needs some of these, emphasis on these is not only insufficient for these goals but takes us off track to achieve the other abilities necessary:

  • *How to better identify and constructively deal with emotions, anger, stress
  • *Non-verbal communications, intention
  • *Distinguishing facts from feelings/values
  • *Detecting fallacious thinking
  • *Asserting oneself constructively
  • *How to make supportive, lasting relationships
  • *Using imagination, creativity, intuition, the aesthetic sense for the arts
  • *Increasing empathy and tolerance
  • *Detecting our own prejudices, biases
  • *Learning ethical reflection
  • *Improving listening skills, the neglected other half of effective communication
  • *Negotiating
  • *Understanding the value of diversity in our culture, and other points of view
  • *Treating others as ends not means
  • *Resisting immediate material gratification- not only in our diets, but in how we use the resources of our planet
  • *The facilitating humor
  • *The whole right side of our brains!

Standardized tests do not, cannot, measure the above essential learnings. They measure what is measurable. Or worse, if not measurableprime facie, they bastardize/reduce these to be measurable/quantifiable numbers, e.g. scoring student essays. As a result, only the “measurable” is counted. And, if it is not “measurable”, it does not count, is not supported by these tests to be placed into the curriculum, is not taught by teachers, [e.g., music, art, emotional education]. Then, these non-measurables are not used to train, evaluate, hire or fire teachers, do not count for most funding sources – bankrupting schools that are not teaching the measurable. Thereby, our society’s institutions of transfer of learning, schools, only bolster the transfer of learning of one side of our brains.

Standardized tests can’t measure: initiative, creativity, imagination, curiosity, effort, irony, affective judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection – a host of other valuable dispositions. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning. [Alfie Kohn, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising The Scores, Ruining The Schools (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000), p.11.] Instead, they encourage storing information in our heads, an outmoded skill – when in many areas, computers can store this information with also the needed accessibility. [Marion Brady, “Unanswered Questions About Standardized Tests”, The Washington Post 27 April 2011.]

Also, “…in inner-city schools, testing anxiety not only consumes about a third of the year, … every minute of the school day… to be directed to a specifically stated test-related skill. Very little art is allowed into these classrooms; little social studies, really none of the humanities. .” [Truthout, 12/1/2010]

Also, these tests de-motivate risk-taking. [Collins and Halverson, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Teachers College Press, 2009, p. 120.] A student is pressured to look for and give the “right answer” on both the test and in class. S/he is not given time or encouragement to think off “track”; the pressure and approval given is to stay on “track” to score the best answers. Such promotes a culture of conformity.

Also, the pressures of standardized testing is a major cause of losing some of our best teachers: “By measuring the success of teachers almost exclusively by the test scores of their pupils, it has rewarded the most robotic teachers, and it’s driving out precisely those contagiously exciting teachers…so hard to recruit…. As Einstein put it, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”[Ibid.]

And, to make matters worse, the language in these tests often reflect an elitist, racist/white.

understanding of what counts – to the detriment of working class, multi-ethnic values and perspectives -impoverishing the rainbow of our cultural diversity.

Our society is not suffering from inefficient cognitive learning, which these tests test and encourage. It is suffering from the retardation of emotional learning, the inability to deal with feelings; drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, teen pregnancy, divorce, loneliness, depression, stress, suicide, and the loss of support for the wisdom of artistic creativity. What is said in, e.g., poetry can often be more valuable to our lives than what is solved in scientific descriptions; “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing, than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”[ e.e. cummings]

“…creativity among U.S. children has been in decline since 1990, with a particularly severe drop among those currently between kindergarten and sixth grade…No points are given for creativity on these tests…. An entire education policy that thrives on repetition, monotony… is being enacted, stunting creativity and curiosity under the guise of the false idol of accountability.” [Truthout, 12/1/2010]

(A word to the skeptics: There is an entire literature, and there was a movement in the sixties, called “humanistic education”, and currently: “character education” – that shows educators how these skills can be taught. [Seeman, Preventing Classroom Discipline Problems, (Rowman and Littlefield, 3rd Ed., 2000), p. 399 for a short bibliography on this area; “character education” at: http://www.goodcharacter.com/ . For talks/workshops on this area, email Prof. Seeman at: Hokaja@aol.com . ] )

Let’s keep in mind that as early as age 3 till 22, children spend more than 6 hours a day with teachers, not their parents, even more if you count the homework these teachers give them. Teachers have a powerful influence on our children, as we all know from noticing this in our own lives. Children see them as role models, substitute parents; they learn how to be in a group from them, social procedures, rules, emotional reactions, handling conflict, sharing, organization, Almost everything we need to learn about life, e.g., sharing, taking turns, being with others cooperation, listening skills, drawing…. Most of what comes from inside us – we began to learn in kindergarten. Teachers transfer learnings that are not just cognitive. They influence hearts, attitudes, self concept, aspirations, the “whole child”, who we are, and become.

“…a message from a former student came to our school’s website…: that he was now a father and Cub Scout leader and taught his children what I had taught him: … to be of value to the community, one must first feel valued. I only teach eight students at a time. But, now I realize that each of them grows up and influences others, which affects their children, families, and communities….” [Seeman, pp. 418-420.]

Teachers are the custodians and life guards of our society. They transfer our entire culture to each generation. There should be statues of teachers, not just soldiers, in all our parks. And notice: this is not because they taught to the tests. However, if we keep applying the pressure of standardized testing, these teachers will be “buried” by these and have little time to educate the “whole child”. Then, we may only have more statues of soldiers in our parks! Countries that de-emphasize standardized tests, out-perform U.S. schools. [Randi Weingarten, “What Matters Most”, New York Times, Dec., 19, 2010]

But, teachers are too much under the gun to get student scores up on measurable curriculum or they may lose their job, and their school may lose funding. Teachers are wrongly made to be the scapegoats of a failing education system.

Also, learning is best accomplished when it has connections to students’ concerns. [Edward J. Meade Jr., Mario D. Fantini, Gerald Weinstein, Toward Humanistic Education: A Curriculum of Affect (Praeger, 1970).] But if teachers do not have time to make these connections, if they are too worried about teaching for the test, such narrow teaching may temporarily boost a score, but will not help a student’s real education for his life. Some 1.2 million public high school students drop out of school every year. [Barry Grey,High school drop-out rate in major US cities at nearly 50 percent”, www.wsws.org , April 3, 2008.] Is our push for higher scores making the drop-out rate higher?

Teachers feel these pressures, and thus cannot find the time to relate to students emotionally; they often get “burnt out” by this pressure. As a result, our caring, tender, warm teachers are swamped with the anxiety of standardized testing. Half of our teachers leave the profession every five years. [Truthout, 12/1/2010]

This obsession with standardized testing is fueled not just by the supposed well intention of “accountability” but by two underlying all too human motives: a) the vested interests of those who now make a huge profit at this industry; b) human nature’s need for an opiate to deal with the “Heraclitian flux” of life itself.

a) Here’s a salient comment from those who make a living scoring these tests:

“Test scoring is a huge business, dominated by a few multinational corporations, which arrange the work in order to extract maximum profit” [Truthout, 12/1/2010].

As with most profit-businesses this size, diminishing their influence is very hard [like the oil companies]; testing supports/feeds many ancillary businesses, e.g. test makers, test evaluators, Kaplan-like test prep companies, test textbooks, test tutors, test prep. software, even paper makers – that all have a vested interest in keeping this consumer project growing –all with the rationale of helping “accountability”. Standardized testing and the computer industry synergistically promote each other: tests are made that can be practiced and scored best by computer software; the software restricts the skills and knowledges that can be practiced and scored.20 Also it is very hard to argue to diminish the influence of standardized testing, as promoters of these present themselves as “do-gooders” with too few ever questioning the assumed “good” they are doing, and the “side-effects”.

b) This obsession with standardized testing is also fueled by human nature’s need for an opiate to deal with the “Heraclitian flux” of life itself. Western philosophy has always denigrated the emotive/aesthetic/affective as a transient low level epistemological ghost – and honored, instead, the cognitive [Plato’s eternal Forms] as the avenue to what is lasting, real and true. We are told that what we feel is merely subjective consciousness, always in flux, not lasting; we are told that the “merely subjective is false”. Thereby, our personal reality itself is given a low status. Our experience, how things feel phenomenologically, [and thus a major part of our meaningful lives] is devalued and shunted. The scientific bias –pushed, is usually for the cognitive; here supposedly truth can be found, the world can be held still, named,temporary-ness, the death of everything can be thwarted.

Thus, we teach, push, measure mostly “cognitive knowledge”. It is then coerced via standardized testing onto our schools as the measure of progress. We are mainly evaluating teachers as to whether they are making our children “head-strong”, improving mainly the left side of their brains.

How should we evaluate teachers?

“If I thought they gave accurate information, I would take them [standardized tests] more seriously,” the principal of P.S. 321, Elizabeth Phillips, said about the rankings. “But some of my best teachers have the absolute worst scores,” … adding that she had based her assessment of those teachers on “classroom observations, talking to the children and the number of parents begging me to put their kids in their classes.” [Sharon Otterman , Hurdles Emerge in Rising Effort to Rate Teachers, NYTimes, December 26, 2010.]

We should use “multiple measures.” We must go back to trusting non-mathematized evaluations, and resist our attraction to the non-ambiguity of numbers [like Ulysses resisted the Sirens]. We must remember that “accuracy” is not validity. Accurately measuring the taste of an apple with a ruler does not give us the evaluation we want.

We must face the fact that we are evaluating quality, not quantity. To reduce quality to numbers is to be seduced into the fallacy of reductionism. We need to trust more the gestalt perceptions of experienced teachers and administrators as they observe teachers. Teachers need to be evaluated not by just the cognitive learning they can transfer, but by the affective-social knowledges and skills they give to students:, e.g., the relationship they have with their students, that they feel comfortable volunteering, are motivated, feel cared about, feel respected, trust this teacher, believe what s/he promises or warns, is authentic and a role model, can engage/motivate students use differentiated instruction, manage a classroom, assess progress [utilize remediation], and collaborate with other teachers and parents. [Dr. Ann Hart, Arizona Dept. of Ed. Deputy Associate Superintendent, Phoenix, AZ.]

Also, we can require students to compile portfolios of their work, where astute administrators and teachers can see, not only the assignments of teachers, but teachers’ comments on these assignments. [Julie Fraad, Assistant Principal Secondary School for Law, NYC.]

We need to have consensual rubrics, e.g., the C.S.T.P, for these evaluations of humans by other humans [as when we try to weed out the pollutants in jury selections]. We need to protect these evaluations from politics, nepotism, prejudices, and peer pressure. To fear using these human evaluations of human qualities – is to let this fear steer us away from what really needs to be counted [not in numbers]. [This fear is similar to the fear that goes too far in wrongly inculcating teachers to “never touch a child”, so that teachers go so far as to never pat a kid on the back!]

We can also rely more on student and parent evaluations. We do, in colleges; student evaluations of teachers [done rightly, in a confidential, systematic way] tell administrators a lot about the quality of a teacher. Sure, in the lower grades such student evaluations are more difficult –but we can design such evaluations specifically for the lower grades. [Dr. Rose, http://teachers.net/gazette/wordpress/robert-rose/merit-pay-proposal/3/]

We can also lean more on parent evaluations. Yes, we will again have to protect these evaluations from politics, nepotism, prejudices, and peer pressure. But it is hard to distrust the evaluation of, e.g., 100 parents over years [reliability increases as the cohort size increases], especially if these evaluations correlate with other evaluations.

Standardized testing is not a cure for what ails our schools, but, instead, an overdose of the wrong medicine with grave, unhealthy side effects. “Though the odds might seem slim, our collective goal, as students, teachers, parents—and even test scorers—should be to liberate education from this farcical numbers game [Truthout, 12/1/2010].”

Howard Seeman* Howard Seeman, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Education, City University of New York, and education consultant at: www.ClassroomManagementOnline.com, author of two books on Preventing Disruptive Behavior, K-12, and Colleges, with a training video cued to these texts, and many other articles on teacher training, philosophy, counseling and emotional education. He also works with individuals as a Consultant for Personal and Professional Development in person or online at: http://echponline.com/index.html. He is available for school workshops and talks at: Hokaja@aol.com

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