There have been many attempts to standardize education since schooling for all children became mandatory in most Western countries. I have documented the experience I had as a child in England with the 11-plus exam (People & Families Magazine, Summer 2012). I took the 11-plus three times in the space of one year in a futile attempt to pass the standardized test. It was not until I was in my early 30’s, and completing my first graduate degree, that I realized I had a learning difference that included an inability to take tests.
“No Child Left Behind” of the George W. Bush administration was an attempt to set into place regulations to assess how well teachers and students were teaching and learning. It was a response to the United States falling behind children in other industrialized societies in English and Math. What actually happened is that teachers began to adapt their teaching methods so that the students would learn how to take the test, so they would not lose their jobs. In fact, the curriculum was adapted to teach to test-taking. Most of the creativity in teaching was removed as teachers responded to the need to be accountable for what the students could regurgitate on a standardized test. We created a school-full of children who could take tests but learned very little about how to adapt their learning to the real world or to experience the joy of learning new facts, ideas and being involved in events outside the classroom.
The most recent iteration of this misconceived concept regarding test-taking being equivalent to learning is “Common Core.” I scoured the website that describes Common Core (www.corestandard.org) and found one page that describes the provisions made for children with disabilities. The page states, “These common standards provide an historic opportunity to improve access to rigorous academic content standards for students with disabilities.” Furthermore, “In order to participate with success in the general curriculum, students with disabilities, as appropriate, may be provided additional supports and services.”
The problem is, these “provisions” for children with disabilities are reserved for those who qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA.) Many children who have problems taking tests, including myself, do not qualify for the IDEA. The accommodations for children with disabilities do not apply to those who learn differently or who have test anxiety or other psychological reasons why standardized testing does not work for them. In my case the outcome of my not being able to take tests was that I was denied an education that would lead to an English university experience. For a child who is subjected to the Common Core curriculum it may mean intense anxiety and / or feelings of inferiority and failure. And, as I have proved, being able to take a standardized test has nothing to do with intelligence or aptitude.
To put it bluntly, standardized tests do not work for a huge number of children. Our education policy makers have to find another way to evaluate educational achievement levels that do not expect all children to do well on methods that require proficiency in rote learning. Why we cannot concentrate our teaching methods on a curriculum that stimulates learning and a love of learning is baffling. I agree finding the best teachers is essential. But the best teachers are not necessarily those who can successfully pour information and data into the minds of children so they can in turn pour it onto an exam page. Teachers should be given the tools and opportunity to find out what stimulates each child to learn. Pay them a decent wage; give them the supplies they need for the classroom; hire counselors and nurse’s aides to take care of non-academic issues; hire teacher’s aides to assist students who need some extra assistance; have a reasonable class size; provide funding for out of the classroom experiences. Then, periodically evaluate each child according to their learning style to see if they are retaining the information they are receiving. (In my case, if a teacher had sat down with me and asked me questions, or had me write an essay, about my educational knowledge they would have found out that I understood everything that was being taught, and had retained the information indefinitely.) If a teacher is not succeeding in teaching the students, hold them accountable.
We need to redirect our educational funds to stimulating learning and empowering our educational system to individualize learning. We have simply not learned that relying on standardized tests to evaluate educational achievement does not work for many children. Unfortunately, we will continue to allow many very bright and gifted children fall through the cracks if we continue to insist this is the only method we will use. Let’s individualize not standardize learning!
Alison Lozano, PhD, MPA, MSW