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Atlanta Journal-Constitution

How to End Over-Testing in Schools: Kids Should Answer Only Half the Questions

Were you heartened to read Maureen Downey’s article about the rise of national movements to reverse the overuse (and misuse) of standardized testing in the public schools?

If so, then you’ll probably be elated to learn that parents actually have the power to end the control that such texts exert over their children’s lives, to end the “teaching to the test” climate that dominates public schools, and to end it virtually overnight.

But first, a little history.

It’s important to remember that the current glut of standardized tests did not emerge organically; that is, the testing fetish didn’t develop as a natural outgrowth of school systems identifying specific educational needs and undertaking appropriate curricular initiatives.

Rather, it was the indirect result of government panic about reports that American public schools were in crisis and that American students were being out-performed by their foreign counterparts in several critical areas. The “solution” was to create top-down mandates for measurable improvements, with such things as funding, promotion, and accrediting tied to those improvements. On the surface, this may have sounded perfectly reasonable.

Unfortunately, this “business-model” approach of simply demanding higher productivity didn’t provide more teachers, new educational resources, or anything else that might actually help make students better learners – it simply left school systems, administrators, and teachers to fend for themselves in meeting arbitrarily imposed numerical targets.

And if you’ve ever seen students struggling with a subject, you know that education differs from the commercial marketplace in some critical ways. Real learning is not necessarily efficient or linear – it may involve trial-and-error, blind alleys, and struggles with intellectual or ethical ambiguities – and you can’t suddenly churn out educated students by simply introducing a new product, inventing a new technology, or rolling out a new advertising campaign.

“If you allow the numbers to dictate the curriculum, we will not cooperate with you in meeting your numerical targets.”

So depressingly, the tests began to wag the educational dog, putting enormous performance pressure on school and teachers, who had little choice but to transmit that pressure to their students, programming them instead of educating them, and creating a generation of college students who are perfectly adept at ticking off rubrics, but shockingly ill-prepared for problem-solving and critical thinking.

In short, the misuse of standardized tests is not just bad for students’ psychological and emotional well-being; it’s bad for the students’ actual education too. And the same is true for other ways schools have allowed the numbers to dictate their curricula, like pressuring high school students into Advanced Placement classes for which they’re not prepared, or cutting back on courses that produce no standardized testing payoff.

So, back to the present. How can parents end this mess overnight?

Exercising the available “opt out” strategies is a great start, but there’s a more powerful – and more empowering – option available. A critical mass of parents, especially those of high-performing students, could simply instruct their children to answer no more than half the questions on selected standardized tests.

This communicates a profound message to the schools: “If you allow the numbers to dictate the curriculum, we will not cooperate with you in meeting your numerical targets.”

I’m not talking here about the academic equivalent of a wildcat strike, or encouraging any readers to have their kids sandbag tests next week. But if enough parents nationwide treat this like a collective act of non-violent civil disobedience, where they coordinate their efforts from the beginning of the next school year and inform teachers and administrators of their intentions, then the schools would be faced with a simple choice.

They could continue to tailor their curricula to the demands of the standardized tests, knowing that the students would refuse to jump through those highly questionable hoops. Or they could return their primary focus to satisfying the intellectual needs and curiosity of the students.

And I can tell you which education I want my kids to have.

Jonathan Herman

Jonathan Herman is director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University.

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