Fearing that the kids are not all right with high-stakes testing

The kids are not all right. Another high-stakes testing season is winding down, and the school year is finishing with a clap of silence and emptied boxes of No. 2 pencils or, more likely, flickering computer screens. Some kids will seem fine with the testing. Some will even think the tests are fun. Others will worry to the point of nausea and visits to the nurse. Some will label themselves smart, and others will feel labeled stupid. All will experience at some level, consciously or in hidden hunches, the collective sigh of relief when the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests are done.

That there are tests at the end of the year is not unusual in the tradition of schooling. That the year-end tests are high-stakes measurements of national and state accountability, that these tests are generated by test-writers far from school classrooms, and that the scores determine the status of teachers and the funding levels for schools are more recent developments (circa 2001’s No Child Left Behind legislation).

Beth Lehman, PhD
Beth Lehman, PhD

The curriculum is being narrowed

Current high-stakes testing is not the same as a final exam, not the same as the occasional standardized tests many of us took in schools in the past century. The current tests are part of a system of accountability that shapes the school experience, kindergarten through grade 12, with state and federally required tests — and the battery of tests districts generate to prepare for the required tests. In many schools, like the elementary school that my children attend (a very fine school by many counts), the curriculum has narrowed in recent weeks to allow more testing and review, so the days no longer include music or art. When testing ends, the formal instruction of the school year will be finished, and the days will be spent in field days and award ceremonies.

It is difficult to comment publicly on the topic of testing, though I know teachers, parents and school leaders spend a great deal of time on the issue — working to understand requirements, lamenting test anxiety and strategizing to boost scores. Some people, including parents, teachers and students, are railing against high-stakes testing by staging walk-outs, joining opt-out movements or quietly teaching creative writing that does not mirror a test prompt. Others, typically powerful leaders and philanthropists who are not educational experts, demand more accountability measures and insist that our schools run like businesses. This is truly high-stakes territory.

To be clear, my intention is not criticism. I am an educator myself. I know the power of accreditation, data and reporting. The business of high-stakes testing is complex and compulsory, and educators at all levels are scared of being caught out of compliance and with students who don’t achieve scores that make the cut. Teachers and schools are working to balance the multifaceted and diverse cognitive and affective needs of children with the demands of legislative and political leaders — who often want to see the development young people function in as tidy and linear fashion as a Ford factory. There are real tensions in the field of education, and these tensions are experienced by all involved.

Time for honest public dialogue

It is these tensions I want to explore, to invite public conversation. It is time for an honest public dialogue on how our children are faring in public school climates of measurement and high-stakes testing. In families, communities and schools, we know our children. We see their curiosity and creativity. We see their frustration and anxiety. How is the high-stakes testing climate impacting their school experiences and shaping their learning? What do we value most in thinking and learning processes? Does the notion of standardized testing match the creative, entrepreneurial spirit prized in this country?

All policy change generates intended and unintended consequences. School districts’ well-intentioned responses to high-stakes testing often create a narrowing of the curriculum so that student learning activities throughout the year look like testing. This means students do less open-ended thinking on blank notebook paper and work through more packets of information with quantifiable, already-prepared answers. Students do less creative problem solving and more answer-finding. Tests are generally written with decidedly correct and incorrect answers. Unlike the nuances of critical decision-making found throughout life (in visits to the doctor, in comparing insurance plans, in selecting checking accounts — as well as representatives in government), students in school spend more time searching for definitive answers than identifying problems and considering questions. Creative, collaborative problem-solving is what I value most in thinking and learning for my children and our community.

Employers and university professors increasingly voice concern for young adults who don’t function as problem-solvers, who want to be told exactly what to do. Many cultural markers — including social media, constant technology and the political climate — are presented as sources of this generational trend. It is significant to ask about the role of high-stakes testing and accountability in these patterns.

Reduced ability to problem solve?

It is possible that college students and young employees are doing what we have taught them well through years of systematic high-stakes testing? They are listening for exact instructions and carefully checking boxes for completion. They are taking fewer risks and searching for the single correct answer predetermined by someone else. Many situations, however, do not have a clear answer.

Another national news story is the decline of entrepreneurialism in America. Commentators point toward the uncertain economy and financial risk involved in launching small businesses as factors in a collective lack of drive to launch new endeavors. I would, again, add a question about the influence of school climates of accountability and measurement. Such learning environments are not the conditions for fostering “outside-the-box” entrepreneurial thinking. Certainly, changes in testing methods and revisions of standards aim to build more critical thinking into high-stakes testing. Yet a system of high-stakes accountability measurements, in which success and failure is tallied and calculated by powerful outsiders, does not foster creative risk-taking for anxious children or worried teachers.

I fear that the kids are not all right, in obvious and hidden ways, in this testing season and the days beyond. I worry that they, along with teachers and school leaders, will enjoy a momentary reprieve before beginning to study and strategize for next year. The stomach aches will subside. The labels of smart and dumb will quietly be internalized by children whose brains are dynamic and primed for growth. The current high-stakes tests are not just exams or data points. They are the force that drives the school experience. The notion of what matters most — testing — is confirmed when the instructional year ends after the high-stakes tests have been given.

This reprieve at the end of the testing season is a fitting moment for public conversation about the nature of learning and thinking. We have time to reflect and wonder before the strategizing and reviews begin again. What do we value most in the learning experiences of young people? How can we support teachers and schools and advocate for creative, critical thinking? What do we do if what we value most is not reflected in the high-stakes testing policies that dominate much of the school year? The educational path for our children is not fixed, and we must explore options and actions to assure they are truly all right now — and in years to come.

This commentary by Beth M. Lehman, the mother of two school-aged children and assistant professor of teacher education at EMU, was originally published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 6, 2014, and is being re-published and circulated by EMU, with permission of the Times-Dispatch. If used further, just credit the Richmond-Times Dispatch.