Monday, June 01, 2009

The Effects of Standardized Testing on Students and the Classroom

Jim B.’s perspective from the trenches.

New York State has had our Regents program for over a century, so standardized testing has been our norm. Since NCLB was enacted in 2000, however, state testing has become mandatory for all students in grades 5-12. My 8th graders this year are the first cohort group to have been tested from elementary through middle school.

This year I have become aware of a growing trend of apathy among students towards learning. Now granted, I know most tweens complain everyday about the compulsory education law, however, I could always count on at least half-dozen students to have that glimmer in their eye and enthusiastic participation upon discovering a new idea or making a well supported argument or point of view. This year, students seem to be dazed zombies, looking at their teacher's passion for subject matter in an answering manner; like we are wasting their time. I refer to my students this year as programmed robots, they know that they have state tests approaching and they want the answers provided to them so they can robotic-ally internalize them for future recognition on tests. They become increasingly restless, apathetic, and downright angry when asked to perform any activity outside the facts, just the straight facts.

Talking to my fellow colleagues, they too have voiced their concern over the state of apathetic thinkers, sharing our teaching methods and practice. Many of my colleagues, like myself, majored in our respected majors as well as education. Our philosophy of education profs taught PHILOSOPHICAL THOUGHT towards generating classrooms in critical thought. We learned how to apply theories of Bloom, Gardner, Aristotle, Sartre, Dewey, and others. The thought of "teaching to a test" was never brought into a discussion. Talking to student teachers and many young untenured (another issue) teachers fresh out of college, philosophy of education has focused more upon rote memorization of presenting information, and an emphasis around technology. As a result, I believe many young teachers are coming out of their respected universities conditioned to the thought that one needs to teach to the test, and the strategies learned in their education classes reflect upon the strategies to be used.

Now, here are the philosophical questions asked by educators. The untenured teachers ask, "How can I get tenure?” For many school districts, the answer lies within the test scores. Many administrators have become evaluators of teachers basing criteria upon test scores; as opposed to evaluators of a teacher's enthusiasm for subject manner, differentiated practices, love of learning and a passion for teaching. Now, the administrator asks, "How can I be sure to have our school look good in the paper so I make my Superintendent happy? The superintendent asks, how can my school district look good in the paper so that I get families to more to my district, therefore increasing our tax revenue?” Much of the NCLB focuses around money for school districts, how contradictory is this, school districts who have low numbers are at risk for loosing state aide, while in return, those "exemplary" school districts who shine at the top of the paper every year, receive money to put towards their budget.

I fear that our system of education (public, at least, I cannot speak for private, Catholic, Montessori, home-schooling, etc.), has become driven by standings and money, or as Neil Peart wrote, "the power and the glory." Therefore, many choose to follow the predetermined path of teaching toward the test. There are still those, however, like myself who look to remain true to our passions of guiding and assisting the process of learning as opposed to programming learning. For example, using documents to open up dialog of various time periods of history, charting political, social, cultural and economically events, comparing and contrasting to similar decades and time periods, or my favorite, using song lyrics and music to exemplify how various Americans have utilized "freedom of speech" to make a political stance, or just simply, making the message of love and compassion accessible to any open minded listener. The Dionysian teachers, are beginning to find that our strategies are becoming "outdated." With students at younger grades now being programmed into the machine, by the time they reach us at junior high, and high school, they have learned how to take tests, successfully recognizing A, B, C, D, or writing essays using a pre-scripted and well orchestrated model, but lacking the skill to be able to analyze, evaluate, or debate using various perspectives. Slowly, the Apollonian forces are winning the battle within the corridors of education. I believe a more prudent question becomes not when to begin teaching philosophical ideas, but rather, are the educators available to teach these ideas? As a lover of philosophy, I am curious, what is the enrollment of philosophy programs? Have you witnessed a declining trend, especially in regard to education philosophy courses?