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Fallout From High-Stakes Tests
Is Growth Being Sacrificed for Conformity?

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" (

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In a new article (unpublished, 2003) Stephen Krashen notes that on the 2002 NAEP reading test, years after "skills based language arts has taken over in California, and supporters of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 in schools.

John Dewey spoke to the dangers of separating means from ends in his classic, "Democracy and Education" (1916).

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 matters.

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

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