Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Test-Centered School

While politicians and policy-makers have made mouth noises about the amount of time spent on the Big Standardized Test and the prep therefor, those elements only scratch the surface of how test-and-punish policy has messed with American schools.

At various times in ed history we have talked about teacher-centered schools, community-centered schools, and student-centered schools. What we have seen over the past decade is the rise of the test-centered school.

In the test-centered school, regardless of what its mission or vision statement may say, test results are the guiding force.

In the test-centered school, there are remediation courses, but these are not remedial courses in the classic sense of trying to help students who are behind in their comprehension of content. These are test prep courses, in which students' time and attention is devoted to practicing the skills of test-taking. Perhaps the school uses a program package so that students can work independently on computers, drilling multiple choice responses to test-style questions, over and over and over and over and over, day after day after day after day after mind-numbing day, until the students have been taught that English and/or Math (because these remedial courses are never required in non-tested departments) are miserable disciplines filled with nothing but drudgery and boredom.

These remediation courses will have two other side effects. First, they will fill up the student's schedule, so that students who have not Done Well Enough on the test must take Remediation 101 instead of shop or art or band or accounting. These will be the students whose strengths are NOT English and Math, but they will not be able to fully pursue their strengths, but must instead spend their school day focusing on their weakness, their area of failure. If you have never spent your days being bad at something, you may not understand just how corrosive to the spirit it is.

If you want to get a sense of how this is, just imagine switching the classes involved. "Sorry, pat, but no Junior Honors English class for you until you can finally play a decent B-flat scale on trumpet," said no school ever. "Sorry, Mrs. Bagswatter, but Chris can't sign up for AP Calculus until that physical fitness test is passed in PE."

The other side effect will be on what the school can offer. Your English and Math teachers will have to make room in their schedule for Test Prep 101, which means that they don't have time to teach any elective courses.

In fact, running a test-centered school system doesn't just affect how time in school is used, but how the school is actually structured. Middle schools in particular may feel the push in test-centered districts (though I had a hard time finding current research about middle school structure trends, and I've folded in anecdotal through-the-grapevine stuff here). One tradition of middle schools is for 7th and 8th grade, but that leaves the whole school ranking based on the results of eighth grade testing. So districts may feel test-based pressure to move sixth and even fifth graders under the middle school roof to help with school ratings, or shift to old school K-8 schools, sidestepping the middle school rating issue entirely.

Bottom line-- we have districts that are looking at structural changes based not on what's best for the students or even what works best with the available physical plants. They are looking at structural changes primarily based on what will have the best effect on their test-based accountability measures.

In a test-based school, it comes down to the test scores and accountability measures. In Pennsylvania, AP test results can count toward a school's ranking. Many states are now moving toward using SAT's as the BS Test for high school ranking. Consequently, where decisions about students taking college entrance exams might have been based on what the student needs (Will the AP credit be any use to her at her chosen school? Does he even intend to go to college?), they are now based on how the student's choice affects the school. This spring, somewhere in America, a high school principal is going to say, "I don't care if the credit isn't going to be any use at Pat's school in Pat's program-- that kid's the strongest student we have in that department. You get Pat in there to take that damn AP test, whether Pat wants to or not."

And that ultimately is the problem with test-centered schools; the relationship between the school and the student is turned upside down. Instead of asking, "How does this help us meet the educational needs of our students," administrators ask, "How will this affect our test scores?" In a test-centered school, the school is not there to serve the students-- the students are there to meet the needs of the school. And no-- there isn't a scintilla of evidence that test prep serves student needs, nor that test results are an important indicator of their education.

Maybe we offer bribes. Maybe we restructure school. Maybe we drill forever. Maybe we make it clear that we will accept no excuses. It doesn't matter. The students are there to crank out the scores the school wants, and policies are measured by that metric-- will this get students to give us the scores we need from them? That's separated from the question of "Does this meet the students' educational needs" by a chasm so large that you could lose the entire US education system in it.

Sure, much is riding on test-driven policies these days. But at some point administrators and leaders and parents and classroom teachers have to step up and stand for the needs of the students before all else. Because if we aren't going to stand up for our students, what are we going to stand up for?


  1. Peter-
    I'm a big fan of you & your writing and want to thank you. Time and time again I find myself saying, "Peter wrote my new favorite, today!" This one will go at the top. As a parent and educator who has advocated publicly and loudly to bring the focus of education back to the kids where it belongs, and away from useless garbage tests, the question you pose at the end of this piece is one that parents must ask their child's teachers, teachers must ask each other, and we all must ask of our school leaders and Boards of Education. Thank you for writing the truth more articulately than I could-your words will provide me an opportunity to take that next important step: demanding more action from parents, my colleagues, and my school leaders. While I admire the work of fellow educators and give thanks that my sons' teachers keep him safe each day, I feel that the time for "niceness" is over. I will not defend teachers whose silence signals complicity with the test centered approach of our schools. Onward!
    -Jessica McNair, Opt Out CNY; NYSAPE

  2. Great piece. I wrote a little piece of my own about students who know that their job is not to learn but to pass tests.

  3. Standing up for students should be part of what teaching is about. You as the teacher, get the parents involved (hopefully, although as we sometimes find out, some parents do lip service about their support), and we draw assistance from our colleagues towards supporting individual students. What test-centrific schools do is demonize the students, the teachers, and the parents for not meeting the ever changing stats. Children are not given the opportunity to enjoy learning and building their knowledge base in a natural way. NO. It is about bowing down to the test gods and creating input/output desensitized students who must ride the capricious wave of educational trends.

  4. The test-centered middle school that my children attended in North Carolina has a whole period largely dedicated to teaching students various "strategies" for test-taking. My children had to sit through this nonsense instead of getting to take another elective where they might have learned something.

  5. Loved this part: "Sure, much is riding on test-driven policies these days. But at some point administrators and leaders and parents and classroom teachers have to step up and stand for the needs of the students before all else. Because if we aren't going to stand up for our students, what are we going to stand up for?"

    One point I would like to say about this. Teachers and administrators are bound by the law! This fight will not, in my opinion, be won at the campus and district level. Unless laws are changed, schools, teachers, administrators and districts will follow the law. I often told parents who were against the test, "These tests are toxic, but I'm forced to teach to them. Please call your legislator!" I hope teachers, administrators and district leadership makes pleas to parents and citizens to call their legislator.

    However, I still think teachers, administrators and districts should shout from the rooftops that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. I would speak at faculty meetings, loudly and passionately, and I often got blank stares and silence. I don't want teachers to quit in protest, because new teachers and TFA members will replace them and be more compliant.

  6. The #Friedrichs Supreme Court Case would make it difficult for unions to advocate for our schools. We need to #WorkTogether to make sure that the State of New York pays a fair and equal amount as determined by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Why would the uber rich want our schools to suffer? Their love for money supersedes equality in an economy where they win and everyone else loses. They have bought our democracy through the courts in #CitizensUnited and now would like to seal the deal through the #Friedrichs case which will take #TheVoice away from our workers. Take away the #Unions and our #PublicSchools lose their support. #Trump can afford to send his kids to private schools but the rest of us must win #Powerball in order to compete. Lets return dignity to #Education and #Students.

  7. The testing and all other "reforms" are poisoning our public schools. I teach in Indiana and it is the worst situation I have even seen in my 25+ years of teaching. I have my own opinion about this in my blog