At the center of the "No Child Left Behind" laws
is an emphasis on accountability, which for all
purposes means increasingly higher stakes for
students, teachers and schools on their yearly
state assessment performances. In her recent
article, "Teaching to the Test: Best Practice?"
(TESOL Matters Vol. 13 No. 3), Lorraine Valdez
Pierce describes the frustration of teachers
"feeling pressured to teach to the test."
When teachers teach to the test, and that test focuses on
discrete items and facts, teachers are, in effect, narrowing the
curriculum to only those items that will be on the test...if the test
itself becomes the curriculum, then the test score only measures
the impact of test preparation lessons and not much else.
(Valdez Pierce, L., 2003)
Stephen Krashen put it another way, in a keynote
speech at the 2002 NJTESOL/NJBE spring conference:
"This is like claiming you raised the temperature in the
room when all you did was put a match under the thermometer" (http://www.eslminiconf.net/njkeynote/).
The stakes are even higher when assessment results
are used to promote social/political/economic goals, as
in California's non-stop debate over how best to teach
children to read. Systematic, intensive phonics is the
latest fad and is advocated so strongly by the U. S.
Department of Education that school districts which
strive for a balance between whole language and phonics
are placing themselves at risk for losing federal funding.
Proponents of strict phonics instruction typically
have pointed to California's poor showing on the 1992
National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)
reading exam, as evidence of the inferiority of the
whole language approach which was endorsed by
the state in 1987.
In a new article (unpublished, 2003) Stephen Krashen
notes that on the 2002 NAEP reading test, years after "skills
based language arts has taken over in California, and
supporters of meaning-based language arts programs
have been ruthlessly attacked and ostracized...California's
fourth graders still rank at the bottom of the country."
Whether the issue is framed as "phonics vs. whole
language," "accountability vs. accommodations" or
even "English-only vs. bilingual education," those who
seek political or economic points at the expense of
students in our schools are really distracting us from
what matters most.
Valdez Pierce is right when she says, "We need to
think rationally and put standardized tests in perspective."
One might go further and say that any assessment is,
ideally, an opportunity for educators to discover how
well their instructional strategies are working and where
these strategies can be improved. If hit-or-miss, high-stakes
testing continues to dominate the educational and political
spectrum, then teachers and their students will keep
missing those daily, weekly, monthly, informal opportunities
for "authentic assessment" of learning experiences because
they will instead be focused on less relevant, but more
significant, standardized exams.
It's easier to put standardized test scores into a political
slogan than it is to give our teachers the continuous support
and encouragement they need in order to create better
learning experiences every day for their students. Democrats
and Republicans, conservatives, liberals and moderates,
every opportunistic politician on the national stage for the
past 25 years has taken the cowardly option of bludgeoning
public schools and public school teachers instead of
taking a long-term, sincere interest in what happens
John Dewey spoke to the dangers of separating
means from ends in his classic, "Democracy and
The only way in which we can define an activity is
by putting before ourselves the objects in which it terminates -- as
one's aim in shooting is the target. But we must remember that the
object is only a mark or sign by which the mind specifies the activity
one desires to carry out. Strictly speaking, not the target but hitting
the target is the end in view.
(Dewey, J., 1916)
Dewey is reminding educators that education
is an experience, or series of experiences, and
those learning experiences are what enable students
to continue growing and learning beyond the classroom.
If their classroom experiences are limited to glorified
test prep sessions, devoid of personal, creative and
meaningful engagement of their minds, then their current
growth as well as future potential for growth will be
severely restricted. What will be needed by future
generations of Americans and world citizens is
something none of us is capable of devising a test
to determine the knowledge of. But the experiences
in our classrooms, schools and communities can
be structured to ensure that those who remain when
we are gone will conserve the ability to learn what
is required for happiness and success in that future world.
Compare to that vision the current popular view of
high-stakes testing as the only way to tell how our
schools are performing. Consider the test-induced
pressure which makes the test the only thing that
In contrast with fulfilling some process in order
that activity may go on, stands the static character
of an end which is imposed from [outside] the activity. It is
always conceived of as fixed; it is something to be attained
and possessed. When one has such a notion, activity is a mere
unavoidable means to something else; it is not significant or
important on its own account. As compared with the end it is
but a necessary evil; something which must be gone through
before one can reach the object which is alone worth while.
(Dewey, J., 1916)
The current policies which are creating high-stakes
testing mania in America are at the same time reducing
opportunities for students to learn how to adapt their
learning goals, midstream, in response to new sensations
found within a learning experience.
In other words, the external idea of the aim leads to a separation
of means from end, while an end which grows up within an activity
as plan for its direction is always both ends and means, the
distinction being only one of convenience.
(Dewey, J., 1916)
This potential for new goals to arise from within a
learning experience is what is missing from today's
standardized test-driven educational policies. If students,
and their teachers, are allowed to become less sensitive
to this vital source of new directions in learning, then
growth and change might no longer be associated with education.
That is a real danger.
Story by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS
2003 ESL MiniConference Online