Education: Testing Fails to Light Up Students’ Eyes

by Judy Ferro

Last Monday an article in the Idaho Press-Tribune gave a glowing account of a “new” method of teaching that was “lighting up” students’ eyes at Nampa’s Union High School.

“Students have more say, are applying for internships, work in large groups and have classes molded around their wants and needs. Teachers no longer sit at the front of the class to lecture but instead ask the students what they want to learn. The students are excited for school every day and are making leaps and bounds in their education,” according to principal Carleen Schnitker.

That “new” method was the one I learned forty years ago. The idea was that every child had a natural hunger for knowledge and teachers should work to keep that alive. Elementary classrooms had “learning centers” where kids could explore their interests. Secondary classrooms offered choice among assignments that encouraged creativity and individuality.

Seeing kids’ eyes light up was a primary goal.

Before these techniques could become universal, however, powers somewhere decided students should be able to move from classroom to classroom within a school, a district, a state, or even the nation, and pick up just where they left off. The idea that mere teachers should be trusted to adapt curriculum appalled them.

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, who taught for 24 years, recalls the change at his school.

“I suddenly had to follow a syllabus and a pacing guide dictated by the district office. There was less trust of the teacher, and that’s a mild way of putting it. We began being treated like we were a transmitter of someone else’s idea of what is good education. Effective education doesn’t work that way. Effective education is building relationships with students. It’s about teachers strategizing on how to engage students. You can’t do the canned lesson or scripted content.

“The test and punish model had us so busy trying to get the kids to pass these tests that we weren’t thinking systemically about what kind of literacy program would be best for our students.”

Other teachers are quick to point out that the testing is no help in directing instruction: results come late and teachers get little feedback on what students didn’t know.

Takano admits, however, that few of his Congressional colleagues “get it.”

Perhaps that’s because the public is sending mixed messages.

Although “opt-out” movements make it clear that many parents feel testing is bad, polls fail to tell us how strong that opposition is. One released in August found that two-thirds of the American public oppose testing; another, that two-thirds supported it.

The pair indicate that many Americans, as PDK/Gallop found, believe that there is “too much emphasis on standardized testing in schools in your community” and still, as EdNext found, support “the federal government continuing to require that all students be tested in math and reading each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.”

That’s possible because many districts require more testing than federal law does. Chicago elementary students take six major tests each year. Pennsylvania students may be tested 20 times in a year, and Florida students may have one-in-three schools days disrupted by testing.

Tests, however, do not “light up” many eyes, particularly when they don’t emphasize students’ progress, but compare them to a norm.

And the knowledge that they are truly helping kids is what will attract and retain the best in our classrooms. Pay increases make it possible for teachers to stay without hurting their families, but it is seeing eyes light up that keeps the best in the classroom.