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De-test-able: How Standardized Testing Undermines Learning


Ryan Kinser

It's early in the second semester, and my language arts students have read exactly zero books. We've momentarily cut down on our debates, trimmed class-building activities, and minimized student-centered projects. We're paying less attention to current events and intriguing articles or websites. There's little time to explore timeless themes of the human condition through literature and even less autonomy to do it.

What has sapped the passion in my classroom and probably many others like it? It's standardized testing season again in Florida, with nearly four months remain in the school year.

Can you find value in a testing schedule like that of my 8th graders?

• January 7 - 8: Florida Assessment for Instruction in Reading (FAIR). Again.
• January 7 - 11: Semester exam review week
• January 14 - 18: Semester exams
• January 29: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test
• February 6: Mock Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in Reading
• February 26: FCAT Writes Test

This obsession with accountability and measuring it with standardized tests has to change before American education suffers an irreparable defeat, one where we sacrifice opportunities to inspire students, to attract and retain great teachers, and to prevent kids from buckling under the pressure.

We are starting to see the stress fractures caused by intensive standardized testing in other countries. A December 2012 New York Times article, "Singapore Aims to Curb Stress on Students," chronicles a growing debate over that nation's testing phenomenon. It even cites a study by Hong Kong Polytechnic University where "about one-third of local students admitted engaging in 'self-harm' and 13.7 percent had contemplated suicide."

In China, educators and the companies hiring graduates are acknowledging the national emphasis on rote testing has resulted in "a loss of curiosity and passion for learning" has resulted from a. How long will it be before American students join them (if they haven't already)?

There are already signs of revolt among students. On our mid-year writing assessment, one of my star International Baccaluareate students revolted against the system. Given a prompt that asked her to explain a job she wanted someday, the young lady wrote an insightful essay detailing her desire to be an FCAT assessor so she could redesign a worthless exam. Flippant? Maybe, but she was right on the money.

Policymakers are so concerned lately with whether or not schools and teachers are effective that we've forgotten to consider the effectiveness of our nation's educational philosophy. Are we still trying to develop critically thinking participants in a fluid democracy as Thomas Jefferson championed in his famous "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," or would we rather churn out automatons capable of demonstrating low-level skills in snapshot testing sessions?

Thankfully some hope exists. The teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle have had enough, and more importantly, they've said so. Other solutions are bubbling to the surface. In my follow-up post, I'll describe a few positive initiatives and how they return value to the way we measure student progress.

Ryan Kinser, a teacherpreneur with the Center for Teaching Quality, teaches English at Walker Middle Magnet School for International Studies in Tampa, Fla.

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