The Challenges of Teaching Under High-Stakes Testing

A US Professor of Education reflects on the challenges of teaching under the obsession with high stakes testing. The following is an edited extract from an article published in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

Designed as one measure of student learning, testing has become the end product of our schools. Our schools are no longer designed to produce educated citizens but rather places to produce test results.

This is the time of year when teaching is replaced by standardized tests in many schools across the United States. Often for an entire month, students spend nearly every day responding to questions written by people who have no knowledge of their schools, their personal histories, their linguistic knowledge and the like.

As with photographs that capture single moments in time, standardized tests allow us to see what a person knows at that particular moment and as captured in the format of the test. They give us a snapshot of a person that is bounded. In place of the complex and nuanced data generated by collaborative inquiry processes, they provide numbers and percentages.

These high-stakes tests reveal little of our students’ passions and interests, or their capacity to take on the risks inherent in embracing new or difficult content or a multitude of other attributes of learners. We know that standardized tests are inherently limited measures of learning and performance, yet we continue to tolerate the practice of constraining our classroom pedagogy and curricula in order to improve test performance, replacing powerful teaching and collaborative inquiry with test preparation.

One response to this quagmire is to develop richer forms of assessment, use collaborative processes, engage in inquiry groups to explore teachers’ own questions, look closely at students’ work with colleagues to notice strengths and patterns rather than errors. That districts often do not provide the time for such activities or value their pace is of concern.

Although some schools have developed alternative modes of assessment such as portfolios and exhibitions, we still do not have large scale forms of assessment that allow us to gaze at the student … order to reflect on and inquire into what might lie underneath the surface.

Our schools are no longer small communities, and we no longer trust the assessments individual teachers make of each child that once were our primary basis of understanding learners and teaching. Unless and until we can develop alternative assessment practices or modalities, our classrooms and schools will be subjected to reforms and policies that are measured by limited means and constrained by equally limited vision.

Katherine Schultz, Professor and Dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, California.

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