The Truth About Teaching to Standardized Tests

I asked my mother for help on this paper.

“You see,” I told her, “what I’m trying to say isâÂ?¦”

“Nevermind that,” she immediately cut me off. “What does your teacher want you to say?”

Today’s education system promotes this kind of thinking, or lack thereof: kids are no longer required to think for themselves. Mary Lohnes, a teacher, notes that “if you ask students why they don’t feel comfortable exploring their ideas they will tell you openly that they have been taught to provide answers, not explanations” (Education Week). Instead of learning how to figure things out for themselves and exploring topics that interest them, students are learning how to answer questions and get good grades. When these kids go on to “the real world” – as opposed to the specially created question-answer world of their schools – they are presented with problems that they have not been taught how to face. The formula their teachers drilled into their heads does them no good if they don’t know how to apply it. As a result, in typical American fashion, people are searching for someone to blame. And the verdict is in. The culprit? Standardized tests.

In January of 2002, President Bush signed a new act: the No Child Left Behind act, or NCLB, which sets out to better educate children through the use of nation-wide standards and better qualified teachers. One of the requirements of the act is that children take standardized tests. These tests are a way for the government to keep track of which schools are up to par on their requirements, and are “keeping up” with the rest of the nation, and which schools need more help in the form of financial aid, or better qualified teachers. In a press release in early 2006, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings raves about the success of the No Child Left Behind Act: “The results are beginning to come in. They show a revival in mathematics achievement in the early grades, coupled with more reading progress in the past five years among nine-year-olds than in the previous three decades” (Colby and Yudof). On the surface, these tests provide the government with statistics on how children in different schools are faring. And, according to the press release, the grades on standardized tests are steadily increasing.

So what’s the problem? Many teachers and parents are concerned with the question of whether or not these tests are a good judge of a child’s intelligence. Is it fair to say that the rising grades on standardized tests mean our school system is improving? Before this question can even be addressed, we must take into consideration that there is no concrete definition of “intelligence.” Howard Gardner proposed the theory of Multiple Intelligences, questioning “the idea that intelligence is a single entity, that it results from a single factor, and that it can be measured simply via IQ tests” (Smith). In his theory, Gardner named 8 different kinds of intelligences such as linguistic intelligence, musical intelligence, and bodily-kinescetic intelligence.

Another great thinker, Jean Piaget, proposed that children develop intelligence in stages, all in the same manner. A third theory, proposed by Maria Montessori, stresses the importance of students’ environment. Kids, she claims, are like sponges, constantly absorbing information. Because of that, she proposes that the learning environment “must actively engage [children’s] interest, it must be accessible to them, fresh, stimulating, clearly seen, uncluttered and, above all beautiful” (Prochazka). Montessori postulates that intelligence arises and thrives due to outside stimuli and engaging learning environments. Is it possible to test all these intelligences with number 2 pencils and little ovals? If we cannot decide what intelligence truly is, how do you test it? Is it even possible to set a standard on something of which we have no standard view to begin with?

Yet the standards still stand. Many benefits exist, contrary to popular belief. Kids who are unlucky and are placed into bad schools do not have to keep suffering. After two years, if their schools’ grades have not improved, they are given a chance to move into a different school. Other kids, who are struggling with certain subjects such as reading, are given the attention they need and do not go on to a higher class, where they would be completely lost without the knowledge they have trouble with.

Yet with the increasing stress on meeting nationwide standards, students are pressured to succeed and pass the tests. What does all this mean for prospective teachers such as myself? By putting a standard on children, we are also putting a standard on teachers. The words we associate with professions tell us what society expects of them. Doctor? Rich. Lawyer? Liar. But what about teacher? A teacher is someone who is expected to come into a class and change everyone’s lives. A teacher should enter a failing classroom and fill it with her charisma, enthusiasm, and optimistic outlook on life. This romanticized teacher should then help the students pass, graduate, and go on to live the American dream of a spouse, two and a half kids, and a dog. Every teacher should be “the teacher that changed my life.” The romanticized teacher is revered and depicted in many popular movies, such as Stand and Deliver, Dead Poet’s Society, and Dangerous Minds.Is this the image I must live up to? As a teacher, am I expected to mold into this standard of the perfect teacher?

But what happens when Timmy – whose father is under house arrest, mother is an alcoholic, and brother beats him – gives up on trying and fails a test in said teacher’s classroom? It’s the teacher’s fault! She must be doing something wrong. All of a sudden the image of a perfect teacher collapses, and she is suddenly the problem, the cause of all our children’s imperfections. In the 2003 movie School of Rock, Rosalie Mullins, played by Joan Cusack, is the principal of a prestigious prep school. In a drunken fit, she confesses this to be the cause of her constant stress: “if anything goes wrong, it’s my head. All right? It’s my head in the smasher. These parents will come down on me like a nuclear bomb” (Imdb). While being idolized and just about worshipped one moment, teachers are blamed if anything goes wrong. The shifting standards of what society views as being a teacher’s roles is a large weight on our nation’s teachers.

I want to teach my students English and literature. I want them to be proud of what they accomplish. I want them to learn. Yet with a looming test over my head, will I, too, be pressured to “teach to the test”? Many teachers are so strained and stressed over helping their kids pass standardized tests, that they abandon creative and meaningful teaching. This drive to meet the nation’s standards has even led to such expensive and wealthy prep courses such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, which teach a child how to pass specific tests.

But is “teaching to the test” really such a bad thing? In an article in Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano writes that “Good teachersâÂ?¦ don’t just pass on information” (Marano). By this she means that it is important help kids learn, rather than simply memorize. Paulo Freire describes the mere passing on of information as the “banking” concept, in which he likens children to containers that are to be filled by the teacher. This leads to mindless memorization on the student’s part, and “education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor” (The “Banking” Concept). A student can memorize material and regurgitate it on a test, while not truly understanding the concept of what he has learned.

Ellen Langer is an advocate of what she refers to as “Mindful Learning,” the opposite of the “banking concept.” In her book The Power of Mindful Learning, she mentions that “one of the most cherished myths in education or any kind of training is that in order to learn a skill one must practice it to the point of doing it without thinking” (The Power of Mindful Learning). Some people are afraid that this is what is happening. In order to help students pass standardized tests, teachers are promoting mindless learning. Students walk away from the tests, and forget the information within a week. Yet abandoning the traditional form of testing altogether is unrealistic as well: teachers need a way to help their students recap on what they learned, or to make sure they’re not slacking off. In the same manner, the government needs to be aware of schools that are struggling.

Instead of constantly seeking someone to blame, and placing all our faith in extremities, a balance between creative learning and “traditional” means of learning must be formed. In his editorial “Let’s Teach to the Test,” Jay Matthews, a writer for the Washington Post, points out that “we never say a teacher is Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½teaching to the test’ if she’s using a test she wrote herself” (Matthews). Perhaps the tests should not be seen as replacing creative thinking and learning in the classroom. Instead, they should be used as a driving force and just another mode of motivation to teach students.

In order to create a healthy and functioning environment of learning, we must find a middle ground: standardized tests don’t have to completely replace creative thinking, just as teachers should not be blamed and revered as the only factors in a child’s life and success. Tests and mindful learning should exist side by side, each one feeding off the other and contributing to a full and crucial education.

Perhaps the fault lies not in our standardized tests, but in the emphasis we put on them. We must accept that while the tests are beneficial in coping with and noticing struggling schools, they should not be used as a basis on how intelligent a student is, or how good their teacher is. We should understand that the teacher does the best job she knows how to do, and this is difficult enough without the additional strain we place on her. Standards should be a basis, not a law.

Works Cited:

Colby, Chad, and Yudof, Samara. “Press Releases.” US Department of Education. 9 Jan. 2006. 25 Apr. 2006 .

“Education Week.” 2006. Editorial Projects in Education. 25 Apr. 2006 .

Marano, Hara E. “Class Dismissed.” Psychology Today. June 2006: 94-101.

Matthews, Jay. “Let’s Teach to the Test.” Washington Post. 20 Feb. 2006. The Washington Post. 6 May 2006. A21. .

Moxey, Tim. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Standardized Testing.” English Journal. (High school edition). Urbana: Mar 2005. Vol 94, Iss. 4; pg 16.

Prochazka, Helen. “Brain Development and Montessori Theory – the Links.” Future of Childhood. 6 May 2006 .

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences’, the encyclopedia of informal education. .

“The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Paulo Friere. 6 May 2006 .

“The Power of Mindful Learning.” Book Page. 1998. GreenSense. 6 May 2006

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