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Testing: Threat or Menace?

Testing: Threat or Menace?

Joanne Jacobs

Student achievement, as measured by test scores, is meaningless, writes Karl Wheatley, a Cleveland State education professor in a Plain Dealer op-ed.

“. . . most of what matters in life is simply not on the tests. Many key subjects and skills that form the backbone of people’s careers are not being tested. Also, many of the top goals that parents and employers have for American students are not on the tests, including teamwork, independence, creativity, love of learning, risk-taking, problem-solving, critical thinking, confidence, initiative, persistence, and to be caring, happy and healthy. Even in the subjects tested, researchers repeatedly find that standardized tests overemphasize low-level outcomes and underemphasize higher-level skills.”

“. . . focusing education on test scores creates collateral damage in every corner of education: dumbed-down curriculum, motivation problems for students and teachers, higher teacher attrition, mind-numbing scripted instruction, increased mental health problems, more kids put on drugs to pay attention and increased alienation, behavioral problems and dropouts.”

Testing isn’t the problem, responds Jamie Davies O’Leary on Flypaper. The problem is low achievement in, for example, Cleveland.

“The most glaring of Wheatley’s arguments is his contradiction that testing is bad because it doesn’t focus on soft skills like teamwork, personal management, creativity, etc. Even if we shifted toward teaching those “skills” in lieu of core content (reading, math, science and history), how would we know that students are progressing appropriately unless we assess their learning? Regardless of what schools teach, that content has to be tested somehow in order for us to know a) that students are learning it and b) that teachers are doing a decent job of teaching it. Furthermore, no one is arguing that self-sufficiency, creativity, etc. are not important, just that they aren’t going to be that useful if students reach high school reading at a sixth-grade level and still can’t tell time on an analog clock.”

Testing enables us to diagnose learning problems — and teaching problems, O’Leary argues. For example, “only 10 percent of Cleveland’s fourth-graders were proficient in mathematics according to the 2007 NAEP, and only 8 percent were proficient readers.”

Bad tests and bad test prep lead to bad results. But no testing lets us pretend that those Cleveland students are doing OK. Poor readers may have a “love of learning” that will kick in some day. Kids who can’t add or multiply may be strong in problem-solving, critical thinking, initiative or persistence. Pigs may have wings.

What do you think about testing? Does the current system need reform? Talk back below.


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