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How About Raising Standards in Areas Besides Testing?

Rebecca Schmidt

As a teacher in my sixth year in Washington, D.C., and therefore someone who has administered hundreds of days of tests, I can empathize with the Seattle teachers who decided to boycott MAP testing. Testing is generally miserable for everyone—kids are forced to sit silently for hours; teachers are not allowed to support their students. Do you remember how miserable you were taking the SAT, the GRE, the MCAT, or the LSAT? Imagine doing that for two weeks straight, as my students do each Spring. And then, in some cases, not finding out your result for months.

My 4th graders recently took the NAEP test, and while this was not a high-stakes test (as I understand it, we won't even get the results), the stress level in our classroom was palpable. As a psychology major in college, I helped run studies on college students about the effect of stress on tasks involving abilities like short-term memory. Before the students completed memory tasks, we artificially raised their anxiety level by administering a 15-minute standardized assessment. Following the assessment, our subjects were more vulnerable, displayed higher stress levels—and performed more poorly at their memory tasks. This is sadly similar to what we do to our students, many days a year.

I've written before on my reservations about standardized testing, and the way we use the results (especially in teacher evaluation). And I question whether these tests are truly an accurate way to measure students' knowledge and skills (and, consequently, teacher effectiveness). I appreciate that the Seattle teachers had the courage and organization to stand up and bring the inadequacies of testing to a national conversation. We absolutely need to reform how and why we test our children. But the response shouldn't be limited to just the tests.

In fact, I'll acknowledge that we NEED standardized assessments for students in some form, both so we can measure student learning and to gauge the effectiveness of reform initiatives. But I wonder why policymakers don't seem to place a similar emphasis on other, probably more important factors in education.

Education writer Sam Chaltain recently posed an insightful question on his blog: What if we reframed the testing debate, and focused more on what happens before the test? We have already standardized the assessments our students take, and most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which help standardize the learning objectives the assessments will test. Yet there still remains a significant achievement gap. But what would happen if we started earlier and were more holistic about uniformity in education? For example, what if we standardized teacher-prep programs and funding for our schools, across the country? What if every student had a highly qualified teacher, and every school had equitable funding, regardless of zip code or district?

My inclination is that we are approaching reform completely backwards. If we standardize school funding and teacher training, those test results might just take care of themselves. We could teach more and test less often.

I applaud teachers who stand up for what is right for their students. I just hope this is the beginning of a larger discussion about school improvement.

Rebecca Schmidt teaches at a public charter school in Washington, D.C.

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