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by Joseph P. Batory
During the past 12 years, since the adoption of No Child Left Behind, elected officials at state and national levels have been consumed with using test scores as a panacea for American education. This political pressure has crumbled the educational resistance from many school districts, which have now bought into test preparation rituals and teaching to the test as the top priorities for public education.
This frenzy over testing has led schools away from meaningful teaching and learning. Getting students to answer a few more multiple choice questions correctly each year, after months of test preparation and rehearsals, hardly means that they are better educated. Worse yet, the amount of time devoted to teaching to the test has shrunk learning activities that foster higher-order skills like in-depth analysis, synthesis, and discussion and deliberation. An unfortunate effect of this devotion has been a narrowing of the curriculum. The more time spent on standardized testing, the less attention given to other subject areas.
In a 2005 study titled “The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High Stakes Testing,” co-authors David Berliner and Sharon Nichols found that an over-reliance on standardized testing had negative, corrupting consequences at every level of the public school system. Speaking about the findings, Berliner said:
“Now we see a kind of mentality seeping into the schools, where generations (of students) are being trained to beat the system. Learning subject matter in depth is no longer the goal of schools involved with high-stakes tests. We are witnessing proof of a well-known social science law, which basically says that the greater the pressure to perform at a certain level, the more likely people will find a way to corrupt the system and achieve favorable results.”
Paul Houston, the former executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, has termed this testing pressure from politicians and bureaucrats as a misguided effort “to bludgeon schools to greatness.” Houston emphasized that this agenda of coercion is wrong and has never worked anywhere in the world.
Beating the test has become the goal of learning in many schools. It has replaced meaningful educational reform in schools. Students study to improve their test scores, not to acquire knowledge. And it is sad to note that many school districts, to create more intensity of test preparations, have curtailed, or even removed, classes that encourage innovation, imagination, creativity, and intellectual discussion. The daily school curriculum is now much more tailored to what is on the tests, to ensure that scores will continually rise. This is only creating a false plateau of educational achievement.
An analysis of the inherent flaws of standardized test results as the primary measure of school effectiveness was published by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, citing “this test and punish approach to school reform as relying on extremely limited, one-size-fits-all tools that have reduced meaningful education to little more than test preparation programs.”
For many years now, an abundance of research, as well as numerous academic position papers and books regarding the misuse of standardized testing in education, have been largely ignored. And parents, teachers and school administrators have had little input into how to improve teaching and learning in our schools. Our nation is continuing to follow a political pathway that will never create meaningful educational improvement.
Joseph Batory was superintendent of schools in Upper Darby from 1984 to 1999. When he retired, he received the prestigious Lifetime Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of School Administrators. He is the author of three books on school leadership.