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Changing the Test-Focused Discourse in Schools

Paul Barnwell

I didn't read past the headlines when news of the Atlanta cheating scandal broke—it didn't surprise me one bit. After all, 12 years of the punitive No Child Left Behind law has hijacked our focus away from the learning process and well-rounded education and towards numbers represented by ill-conceived tests.

As a young(er) teacher, I remember loathing the way NCLB seemed to dictate how we talked about education. This discourse—revolving almost solely around high-stakes assessment—has been a toxic fuel, distracting countless educators from promoting and practicing effective teaching and learning. I still cringe when I have to sit through a meeting about test scores, but I've come to expect it.

Discourse in education continues to be highly skewed towards high-stakes assessment. Language reflects values, and these values create our school cultures that overemphasize tests. To push back, let's be deliberate about how we use our words. Let's talk and write about what is most important, not what is imposed.

Why did you become a teacher? Was it to discuss Adequate Yearly Progress, reading proficiency scores, and strategies to improve test scores, among other terminology that has inundated faculty, department, and professional learning community meetings and paperwork demands?

Or did you (and do you still) desire to discuss and practice your craft in terms of passion, curiosity, innovation, relationships, creativity, and happiness?

When was the last time an administrator asked you, how have you supported the whole development of students in your class? Or, how many students might need extra social services? Or, have you identified students who are passionate and curious about certain topics and subjects, and what are you doing to help them pursue these goals?

Unfortunately, some teachers never seem to hear these—or similar—questions.

If school leaders and administrators don't start different conversations, then we can. In 2008, I wrote in Education Week, "Talk to coworkers about exciting things you are doing in your classroom to inspire children, even if it isn't a strategy that will positively affect test scores. Discuss with your principal ways in which your school can celebrate the process of learning, rather than solely the end product of testing indexes." I stand by these words. Be bold in expressing words that represent values beyond embracing high-stakes testing, and we can begin reshaping school cultures to benefit all students.

Paul Barnwell teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky.

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