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Synthesis/Regeneration 23   (Fall 2000)

Thoughts from a high school teacher

Standardized Tests Flunk

by Judi Hirsch, Oakland Greens

In the Spring, editorials appear in our newspapers exhorting parents to be nice to their kids, to be sure they get a good night's sleep and to send them off to school with a hearty breakfast. Similar notices are sent home from school with the students. Spring is Standardized Test Time.

It is time for teachers to stop teaching and for children to stop learning. Here in California testing has a special meaning. It's time to feed the Governor data upon which API (Affluence Performance Index) will be based. He has decided that the best way to help our schools is to rank each and every one of them in the entire state, and to publish the results. Winners will be rewarded with soaring real estate values and losers will continue to suffer the malaise and neglect we have always known.Why do we assess children? What are we trying to learn? The justification for the use of an educational assessment tool should be its contribution to teacher (and student) awareness of how to improve student achievement in school and, thus, how to contribute to a student's success in life. The results of any evaluation should enable educators to link remediation to the problems uncovered by the assessment.

The results of static, standardized, norm-referenced tests tell us nothing about the person we are trying to reach. What can a teacher do with a child whose reading score is at a grade level of 3.6? Or who has a math score of 4.8? Will she know what the student likes to read or what kind of math problems are hard for him (or her) to do? Or why they received the score they did? Were they scared? Was there a word they didn't understand? Did they have a traumatizing experience that morning before the test? At what critical point did they need to hear a word of encouragement? There are so many reasons why students do poorly on tests—all tests, but especially the "high stakes" ones that determine whether or not they'll graduate or go on to the next grade—that it's a useless and hurtful way to try to learn something about the youngsters we teach. There must be a better way of assessing our youth.

It is important to remember that it is the young person who is doing the learning. Teachers are only there to provide the necessary structural support, information and encouragement. We are midwives, vital as catalysts, yet outside of the learning process. If a child can crawl and needs a hand in learning to walk, a mediator would be there, cheering her on, holding out their hands, saying lovingly "Come here, sweetheart." We wouldn't insist that she continue to crawl, nor would we demand that she begin to skip; we certainly wouldn't give her a "walking" test.

We can change the relationship between teacher and student from an authoritarian, top down, "I teach, you learn," model, to one of collaboration.

Helping our youth would be easier if our culture were more child-centered. Unfortunately, certain groups in our society are looking for a quick fix. Pointing fingers at youth, especially those who are low income, immigrants and/or people of color, has become more and more common. We must find positive ways to counter this oppressive and discriminatory trend.

Given the current situation, and the increasing reliance on "high stakes" tests across the nation, what can we do to help our students and ourselves? We can change the relationship between teacher and student from an authoritarian, top down, "I teach, you learn," model, to one of collaboration. Each teacher could be, as Australian educator Julia Atkins says, a "guide from the side" rather than a "sage on the stage." Not only will this move the children to the center of our enterprise, but it will help us to avoid the burnout that drives far too many of us away from the joy of working with young people as they struggle to make sense of their world.

When we move curriculum away from prepackaged pablum towards content that is relevant to the lives of our children, each student can be challenged and allowed to construct meaning in a way that makes sense to him or her. If we focus more on the children and do away with grades and standardized tests, the likelihood is that more of our underachieving students would be removed from the "endangered species list," a goal near and dear to the hearts of many educators, parents and community members.

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