Opinion Extra

What if we skipped over standardized test season?

For much of April, officials at my two sons’ school urged parents to attend presentations to ready our children for the May marathon: a month when S.C. students are immersed in taking a battery of standardized tests.

The presentations focus on providing practical suggestions for preparing our children for the test, by assuring they get enough sleep and eat a good breakfast, keeping them calm and avoiding other types of stress-inducing possibilities. Meantime, students in some schools are peppered with pep rallies and balloon send-offs.

The result: Parents’ anxiety levels are heightened. Students’ anxiety levels are heightened. I would add teachers and school administrators in that anxiety-induced number, as well.

Yes, indeed, standardized testing season is in full swing.

How did our schools become so test-centric? Let’s take a quick look back.

Since 1983, when a major report titled “A Nation at Risk” claimed that public education was doing a mediocre job, which was followed by successive school reform efforts (e.g., No Child Left Behind and others), there has been a proliferation of standardized testing in American public education.

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James Kirlo

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Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardizedtests about my own poems

The new standardized tests require much more than No. 2 pencils

Want to help your kid ace the next big test? You'll laugh when you find out how

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Prior to the 1950s, students who completed high school took approximately three standardized tests through their entire K-12 experience. By 1991, the average was 18-21. Today, upon completion of their K-12 school experience, students can take anywhere from 60 to 100 standardized tests. In short, more than 100 million standardized tests are administered yearly across the United States, costing the states approximately $1.7 billion a year and making U.S. students among the most tested in the world.

This intense focus on testing and its results has moved into the realm of obsession, so much so that we now refer to “high-stakes” testing because the tests are becoming the primary criteria on which we assess and evaluate our children, teachers, administrators, schools and school districts. So the “reform” movement provoked by “A Nation at Risk” is now controlled by the profit-making testing industrialized complex.

This testing culture objectifies youth, fosters a constricted view of what is educationally important and largely blames teachers if students don’t “perform” to some arbitrary expectation.

This testing culture objectifies youth, fosters a constricted view of what is educationally important and largely blames teachers if students don’t “perform” to some arbitrary expectation.

The testing environment has placed school-aged youngsters under unnecessary stress, provoking fear and inducing bouts of panic, crying spells, apathy, sleeplessness and depression. It is for this and other reasons that — along with other esteemed educational organizations — the American Educational Research Association, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Association of Childhood Education International have denounced the overuse of standardized testing. It’s also why droves of parents — myself included — have opted their children out of taking these tests.

Worst of all, this testing movement has yielded very little in terms of improving our schools or closing achievement gaps.

Worst of all, this testing movement has yielded very little in terms of improving our schools or closing achievement gaps, as I have chronicled in my latest book, Teaching with Purpose: An Inquiry into the Who, Why, and How We Teach. In fact, one could argue that our nation is more at risk than it was 30 years ago, still leaving scores of children behind. Illiteracy remains high, millions of children still live in poverty, and countless youngsters are still attending classes with limited resources in schools that are old and dilapidated.

Of course, we can’t constructively work on solutions unless we recognize the problem. That is, unless policymakers and decision-making entities realize that a test-centric environment is ultimately unhealthy for our youth, we will continue down this spiral, robbing many of them of opportunity, equity and a developmentally appropriate educational experience.

Perhaps this standardized testing season would be a good time to rethink how we assess and evaluate our students.

If we exerted the same amount of energy, fervor and expense on rectifying structural inequalities in our schools as we do on our testing fixation, and if we celebrated schooling with pep rallies and balloon send-offs that genuinely recognized the individual gifts and talents of all children, I believe we would see the progress we’ve been looking for.

Dr. Kirylo is an associate professor of education at USC; contact him at KIRYLOJA@mailbox.sc.edu.

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