by David Colarusso - March 9th, 2007
High stakes testing threatens American education. Well-meaning politicians and communities frightened by a changing world risk hobbling the American educational system, producing a testing leviathan incapable of responding to the challenges of a global economy and destined for mediocrity. Six months ago I accepted a Fulbright teacher exchange to Edinburgh, Scotland, leaving the Bay State and my classroom in Lexington for the home of James Watt and Adam Smith. Now preparing my students for national exams, I think of their counterparts taking the MCAS, and I am compelled to warn of the dangers ahead.
The primary difference between Scottish and American education is centralization. Comparable in size to Massachusetts, Scotland is a nation of some five million. The educational system is based around a national curriculum, and high school courses are assessed externally through a battery of national exams. This results in a format similar to the AP for all classes, and students spend much of their time preparing for “the test.” This sacrifices diversity of instruction, so much so that Scottish education is realigning itself under an aptly named initiative, “Assessment is for Learning.” We, however, seem intent on repeating their mistake.
The rationale is simple, quantify educational product and allow the market to maximize production. This product is often derived from tests. Some are better than others, but the fact remains, there is no predictive model of human learning, and until one is found, the best means of preparing for a test is to teach to it. When the stakes are high, it’s irresponsible not to. Pressure produces better scores. However, this doesn’t necessarily produce better education. Instead we chill innovation and rush towards the average. To paraphrase Rafe Esquith, the measure of my teaching isn’t how my students perform on next week’s exam but how they perform in life. Until that can be tested, we must not blindly assume test pressure works in our favor.
Attainment on tests and true learning, whatever that is, need not be mutually exclusive. However, when a teacher loses control of the curriculum, it’s like a doctor answering to an HMO; professionals who know the students best find their hands tied. Without the freedom to try new things, innovation is chilled and the whole suffers. Most importantly, in today’s world economy the system loses its ability to respond quickly to change. Here in Scotland, for example, the general physics curriculum still tests students on the operation of a black and white television. Bureaucracies are slow. I have heard Massachusetts teachers question the new priorities of the biology MCAS. Why are there eight standards on “anatomy and physiology” and only three on evolution? Isn’t evolution the central tenet of biology? What if the test makers get it wrong? How quickly can they adapt?
We need to foster innovation and to normalize standards. Educational spending can vary dramatically from district to district, with affluent communities paying a lower percentage of their income and spending more per pupil than those living in economically depressed communities. We should restructure funding so that most differences are independent of municipal resources, allow teachers the freedom and time to innovate, provide centralized guidelines and resources, and avoid monolithic curricula. Innovation requires time as well. Imagine you’re a consultant running an hour long presentation and focus group. You’re expected to demo a product, take questions, and elicit audience responses. How long do you take to prepare? Now imagine five different presentations every day. We need to impose caps not only on class size but overall course and student load. We also need to address the trajectory of a teacher’s career. After five years teaching, I am in the senior most position I will ever hold, and my pay is independent of my performance. I have no desire to leave the classroom and become an administrator, and on paper the burnout down the hall is valued the same as the wide-eyed idealist who clocks in at 6am and out at 9pm. There need to be incentives for innovation, not only opportunities. Here, however, I recognize education’s central dilemma. How do you quantify the quality of an education? I don’t know the answer, but I’m certain it’s not a multiple choice test.
General Observations, Society At Large