Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Teaching to the Test: A Teacher's and Parent's Dilemma

On Saturday,  Mrs. Mayhem related to her readers that her daughter, Millie, is "struggling academically.  As a kindergartner."

A Brief History

Once upon a time, I desired to be a teacher.  I finished all the pre-requisites at my University, completed the volunteer hours, wrote the admissions essay, and was about to apply to the elementary education program when I realized I could not do it.  Why the change?  A couple of reasons. 1) The teacher I volunteered under over the summer scared me. She was extremely harsh (not strict) and almost oblivious to each child's educational needs.  The second reason I will get to in a minute.

Standardized Tests

Mrs. Mayhem mentioned that the teacher's proof for Millie's supposed poor performance were her standardized tests.  In my opinion, this is where our educational system has failed.  The government recognizes there is a problem with dropout rates and under achievement with underprivileged populations.  Yet, their idea on how to treat it is through testing measures.  Measures that have been shown to have systematic bias toward those same populations.  President Bush initiated the No Child Left Behind Act, which actually pushed those needy populations even further behind,  while President Obama is advocating for longer school days and performance pay for teachers.  "Performance" being defined as how well their students perform on standardized tests.

I wonder, do government officials even consult with child/adolescent development experts?  Most of the educational changes proposed by the government are a reaction to our competitor's (i.e. other countries) test scores in the areas of Math and Science.  Because a few countries are ahead of us in producing the next Scientists and Engineers, our leaders have decided that in order to compete, we must focus our educational goals on these specific subjects and increase standardized tests to make sure that teachers are complying with their wishes.

Teachers Are Not to Blame

Mrs. Mayhem emphasized that her daughter's teacher is not to blame.  I agree.  Teachers are set up for failure.  If a teacher is wonderful and amazing and utilizing developmentally appropriate practices rather than teaching rote memorization, she might be booted because her students perform below average on tests designed to only measure certain facets of a student's performance.  What should said teacher do?  Her job is literally on the line.

This is where my second reason comes in.  I disagreed with the approach to education and even the training of teachers. The strict testing measures that were beginning to be enforced at younger and younger ages appalled me.  In my mind, taking a more holistic approach to education--one that emphasizes developmental stages and adapts teaching to each child's strengths and weaknesses--was much more focused and easier to attain.  I didn't like the feeling that I would inevitably fail.

It is unfair.  Unfair to the students, especially underprivileged students, unfair to the teachers, and unfair to the parents.

Do I have a solution?  Many.  But my voice only echoes that of many experts in the field and, unfortunately, is lost in this fast-paced society that fails to recognize a student's performance can't be forced through testing or rote memorization.  They must first love to learn.

What do you think?

After I wrote this piece, I researched on-line to make sure I wasn't making false claims.  In the course of this event, I found this article, Standardized Testing and Its Victims, by Alfie Kohn in which he addresses the issues I have raised here and many more in greater depth.


  1. My degree is in secondary education and I could not teach when I got out of school. I was too disgusted with the system. It is a sad state. This problem has been around forever. I wonder if it is really able to be resolved. How do you measure performance? I don't know - there has to be some testing involved (in my traditional mind). But what, I simply don't know.

  2. I have heard many teachers say exactly this, that pretty much the smartest kids are brought down to everyone else's level and are totally bored, the average kids are fine, and the ones that are struggling are still struggling, the tests don't HELP the struggling kids get smarter. Those tests do nothing but stress out the teacher and gives her the material that she needs to drill into the kids heads, like you said. It has nothing to do with "teaching", but memorization.

    It's ridiculous, I agree. It's really sad.

  3. I agree with a lot of this, and yet have seen teachers who have really flown and kids who have had some awesome experiences, even with the restrictions on them. My kids have had such teachers.

    But it does worry me that teachers leave. If they do, who will help? How can we help keep this from taking over the system? I do have worries, and yet it seems like giving up can't be the answer (not questioning individual choices, just speaking generally here).

  4. Thanks for linking to my post! The system is so frustrating; I don't blame you for changing your mind about teaching.

    I requested Millie's test scores and was surprised to see that she is actually quite a bit above the benchmark, with perfect scores in certain areas... yet still the teacher wrote a note that she will be getting extra help from the reading specialist.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your statement, "they must first love to learn." That is the most important factor but many teachers (including our kindergarten teacher) have lost sight of that fact.

    Today Millie came home from school saying that she was "not good at writing words." That broke my heart. I want her to enjoy learning, not start out feeling as though she is below par (especially when she isn't!).

    There aren't any answers for the school system in general, but I will continue to support my kids, study at home, and tell them that the grade isn't as important as whether they tried their best.

  5. Oh, oh, oh. I spend so much of my time at work and at home talking about questions like these. It's tough: We need to be able to measure and assess. We need to be able to learn and grow from tradition. We need room to be creative and innovative. We need more room and time and people and resources - more energy and ideas and freedom. Maybe we need more ways for people to become teachers, and more time in school, and more (and different) evaluation tools.

    I think everyone can agree that it's really, really hard to do it all.

  6. Thank you for this comment, Michelle. I agree with you, students and teachers have excelled even under this system. I guess I am more worried about those underprivileged students because they suffer more than most.

    That said, I am extremely grateful that we have free education. While I disagree with how its run, I feel that it is my responsibility to be in charge of my kids' education. (Within reason.) As you said, giving up is not the best option. Moving forward while fighting for changes--through the appropriate channels--would benefit the most people.

  7. Thank you for this reply, Mrs. Mayhem. And the update. I feel the most frustrated for you daughter. Really, education can only go so far if kids don't enjoy it.

    As for doing your part--that's what I intend to do. Even though I disagree with how the system is run. Frankly, I am grateful to the teachers for their hard work and to the government for providing free education. But, it isn't their job to make my kids excellent students. That's where I can come in. Just like you are clearly doing.

  8. Leslie: I entirely agree with you. There is so much that needs change, but the issue is much more complicated than I indicated here. I guess I think one tiny step would be to not put so much emphasis on standardized tests to determine where a child/teen is academically.

  9. Thank you for this comment, Kristen. It's a tough issue for everyone.

  10. I agree, Cathy. Testing does need to be involved but to what extent, right?

  11. I agree whole heartedly. Emma was "behind" in Kindergarten and put in a remedial group. Yeah. She's one of the youngest in her class. Some of her classmates are as much as 10 months older than her. That's a huge gap. And her self-esteem took a BIG hit.

    Kids aren't standardized so school shouldn't be either.

  12. I am struggling with all of this, watching my daughter in a system I do not like. And her classroom is set up for individualization. The teacher pulls small groups (2-4) kids, and assigns pairs to do various station tasks around the room. They do this for math and for reading.

    Even so, I feel dread in my heart that my girl isn't seen for who she is, and isn't being nurtured into who she can be.

    It's enough for me to consider home schooling, an option that I didn't once understand. But, my girl loves people, and while I can provide good learning experiences, i cannot bring her 20+ friends daily.

  13. We use standardized, norm-referenced testing to qualify kids for special ed, but i don't do end-of-year kinds of tests. I get the complaint about these tests, but until someone has a better idea for a general way of comparing performance in a straight and regular way, it is hard to see a better way. Kids need to be compared to other kids the same age, with the same paperwork (test) in order to set up a real standard. Just using grades that are decided on by a teacher is not even close to establishing norms.

  14. I'm a teacher and a parent...and I don't know what THE answer is...but I know it's not what we have in place right now.


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