Real Test Is, Did the Kids Learn to Think?

Roger H. Weaver is headmaster of Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica.

Everyone is painfully aware that the educational infrastructure of this country is hurting. Teachers are underpaid. Education budgets, with few exceptions, continue to be slashed. Arts, athletics and other "frills" are being cut back, if they still exist. Student dropout rates, particularly in the largest urban areas, continue to climb. And so much of the school experience is for so many children impersonal and not relevant at best, and frustrating and alienating at worst.

Politicians routinely cite education as their absolute top concern, no doubt because the polls tell them it should be. But when government entities finally get around to focusing on education, they always seem to come up with variations on the same solutions that have not worked for years: a frenzy of "testing and accountability" programs.

Principals, teachers and parents give it their best and try to make it work. But each time we look for a payoff for the kids, the promise has disappeared. It doesn't work.

Like so many reforms before it, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act was loudly trumpeted as the solution to our problems. But thanks to its unimaginative approach, the extent to which pedagogy and curriculum are now driven by testing in California is almost total. We are faced with a dizzying combination of testing programs, such as STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting, which aligns with the state standards), CAT/6 (California Achievement Test, which indexes to national norms) and CAPA (California Alternate Performance Assessment, for students with "the most significant cognitive disabilities"). These requirements, often accompanied by additional district assessments, have created an instructional culture that is almost entirely test-driven.

It is astounding to me that American policymakers have been so consistently duped by one of the most long-running and durable scams ever perpetrated on the public: the ridiculous notion that the kinds of things that can be tested by filling in a sheet of bubbles with a No. 2 pencil are what is most important when it comes to education, that high-stakes testing gives us useful, relevant and helpful information about teaching and learning. The fact of the matter is that precisely the opposite is true. The real goals of education cannot be easily quantified: creativity and original thinking, imagination and adaptability, flexibility and innovation, insight and the capacity to apply knowledge and understanding in unfamiliar circumstances, appreciation of the complexities of context, genuine respect for the views and beliefs of others. Such things cannot -- not now, not ever -- be measured by a multiple-choice test.

Educators are among the hardest-working, most dedicated people in our society, doing the most important work there is. But the testing mania that consumes our schools puts teachers and students in a forced march to the April test dates. The consequence of this is not only that all the spontaneity and all the opportunities to explore the "teachable moment" are eliminated but also that more kids get left behind. And if schools are classified as underperforming, they can lose funding and all but basic curricula and suffer the imposition of more testing. The academic casualties of such a test-driven system constitute staggering losses of human potential and will play out in our communities in sad and painful ways for years.

There are better options. Adequate funding, manageable class sizes, a demanding, balanced curriculum that nurtures not only cognitive skills but also the creative, expressive, imaginative and personal lives of kids -- these will provide results that no lock-step, test-driven curriculum can ever achieve. Every teacher understands the importance of meeting learners where they are, yet this mandatory "teaching to a test calendar" approach forecloses the options.

There is something terribly wrong with such a picture. The public must send a message to policymakers that the same old game just cannot be played any longer. There is far too much at stake.

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