Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Is This What We Really Want for Education?

Tuesday May 22, 2012

Just as students all around Australia participated in the NAPLAN tests last week, students across the United States are also in their testing season. ‘High-stakes’ tests in the US have been in place for over 20 years and they provide a lesson about what we can expect from NAPLAN and My School in the future. The lesson was spelled out in an article in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog over the weekend. Here are some excerpts:

“Educators across America agree that high-stakes testing has taken the place of meaningful teaching and learning in our schools. They’re united in their conclusion that it’s a poor tool for assessing a child’s educational progress and needs. They agree that an over-reliance on standardized testing actively worsens the quality of American schooling. At best, they say, it leads to a narrowed, inflexible curriculum aimed at test prep and regurgitation. At worst, it erodes our students’ abilities to grow into lifelong, creative learners and inquisitive problem solvers.

“As our classrooms have been turned into test prep centers, important subjects that are not emphasized such as science, history and art have been significantly reduced in schools. In turn, students are becoming disengaged, stressed, checked out and — worst — dropouts.

“Even for those students who stick with it, tests degrade the educational experience, fueling performance anxiety and the false impression that academic success is about speed, accuracy and competition. In the elementary schools of Palo Alto, California, for example, students as young as first grade are given a district-mandated test of 50 math questions to solve in three minutes. Children often cry when they’re given these tests. Worse, they imbibe the message that math is a performance subject and success is all about reproducing facts under pressure even though the latest science tells us that speed tests are a direct cause of math anxiety and that they impede mathematics learning.

“Perhaps even worse than the anxiety they create, standardized tests also erode the student’s relationship with his or her teacher. As Deborah Stipek, former dean of education at Stanford University, has pointed out, standardized testing doesn’t just limit the teacher’s ability to innovate her curriculum or pace his lessons to individual student needs. It also destroys teacher’s ability to cultivate the trust, respect and sensitivity that turn her students on to learning. “When tests become high-stakes, teachers naturally focus their attention on the knowledge and skills the tests measure,” she writes. This leaves little time for educators developing what Stipek calls “a secure relationship” between the teacher and the student. And it undermines the benefits of that relationship, which is a student who is unafraid to ask questions and undeterred by challenges.

“American students will spend the better part of a week this month taking standardized tests. They will be denied the opportunity to develop their passions, to think deeply, and to experience critical thinking, innovation and teamwork. And they’ll be taught that it’s fill-in bubbles and timed answers that measure their academic worth and growth.”

The authors urge readers to support a national resolution on high-stakes testing to demand an alternative approach to education.

“We urge everyone who is concerned about the future of education in America to read this resolution and to endorse it, publicly and vocally, in communities and before school boards across the United States. It’s time to demand a new model: classrooms that eschew rote memorization and test prep; teachers with the power to implement effective and flexible teaching strategies; students who are connected to their teachers and love to learn.”

Parents and educators in Australia should consider a similar resolution before education in our classrooms becomes as degraded as it is in US classrooms.

Trevor Cobbold

The Washington Post article was was written by Vicki Abeles, a parent of three and the director of the documentary, Race to Nowhere and Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford University. “Race to Nowhere” challenges common assumptions about how children are best educated.

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