Standards, Testing, and Curriculum Control

E. Wayne Ross

[Originally published as "Tests only part of an education: They are a means, not an end" in the Times Union (Albany, NY), September 16, 1997, pp. B1, B2.
Reprinted in Theory and Research in Social Education, 25(4), Fall 1997, 404-406.]
The growing consensus on educational reform is that higher standards for core subjects areas, accompanied by rigorous testing programs linked to the new standards, is the best way to improve public education. While expectations are important, the search for a "magic bullet" to solve the problems faced by public schools has produced an approach to reform that degrades the competence of local institutions, teachers, and students to establish their own goals. This approach also diverts attention away from the conditions of learning and teaching that must be changed if schools are to be improved.  

New York State is a long time leader in the use of top-down approaches that define what should be taught in classrooms and enforce compliance via high-stakes tests, which drive instruction toward a single set of standards. The logic, of course, is that "what gets tested will get taught," and while high-stakes tests can focus instruction, giving students and teachers specific goals, the educational costs of such an approach outweigh the benefits.  

Proponents argue that mandated tests linked to specific standards force teachers to "teach to the test" thus preparing students in the skills and knowledge measured. Unfortunately, this logic fails to distinguish between the skill or knowledge itself and a fallible indicator of them-test scores. When test results are the primary indicator of school effectiveness, we tend to treat test scores, rather than meaningful learning, as the goal of schooling. This distortion of the purposes of schooling produces a number of deleterious effects on teaching and curriculum.  

There is tremendous social pressure (from parents, school administrators, and students themselves) on teachers to see that students perform well on high-stakes tests. As a result, an increasing portion of instructional time is devoted to test preparation and "cramming" rather than focusing on learning. Instead of teaching aimed at actively engaging learners' minds through in-depth study of issues, hands-on experience, debates, simulations and inquiry, the focus of teaching becomes "covering the material" that will be tested. To further insure student success on examinations, teachers pay attention to the form of exam questions (essay, short answer, multiple choice) and adjust their instruction accordingly, reducing the skills and knowledge to the level measured by the test. The clearest evidence of the latter is the use of test prep books as textbooks in high school courses. Measurement-driven instruction also narrows the range and depth of learning by concentrating attention on skills and knowledge that are amenable to testing.  

The developing consensus on educational reform at the state and national level places its highest value on increased test scores. This is evident in the state-by-state comparisons in the U. S. Department of Education's "Wall Chart" and in New York with Education Commissioner Mill's "School Report Cards" initiative. By establishing content standards for local schools and coercing compliance via mandated testing programs this reform effort reduces teachers to conduits for the delivery of pre-packaged knowledge, diminishes their professional judgment, and constrains the creativity and spontaneity of teachers and students.  

Instead of merely measuring the success of schools, the current efforts to reform education in New York will allow state-mandated tests to determine what is taught, how it is taught, what is learned and how it is learned. Teachers and local school communities will be without the authority to bring their collective resources to bear on a matter as important as the education of the children in their community. The people who know children best-families and teachers-already have too little power to affect change in their schools. Standards-based reforms exacerbate this by transferring control over the curriculum away from local school communities to the agency that controls the mandated examinations. It is important to note that since most state level testing programs are developed and validated by outside contractors that state education departments may be delegating this power over education to private corporations whose primary concern is profitability.  

In an effort to develop more creative, complex thinkers, standards-based reforms produce a form of "educational suicide" by creating an accountability system that blocks attainment of this very goal. This is an irony that was not overlooked by the 1988 New York State Task Force on the Teaching Profession, which stated that "what we have the system designed and redesigned to perfect top down control has only a limited capacity to respond to individual student needs. Before the structure can be changed to allow those school personnel closest to students-the teachers-to respond directly to their needs, there must be a commitment to establishing trust in teacher competency." Trust in teachers and others in local school communities is exactly what is missing from standards-based educational reform efforts in New York and nation-wide.  

My argument is not against raising expectations for students and schools, but rather for allowing local schools and their constituencies to develop goals and standards in specific situations for specific students. The greatest mistake of this and previous school reform efforts is the failure to secure the active cooperation of local school communities in constructing the purposes and direction of reforms. Parents, students, teachers, and other community members must participate in meaningful discussions about what kind of schools they want for their children. Of course, everyone will not subscribe to the same visions of what ought to be. Standards-based educational reforms, however, endeavor to create "one-size-fits-all" schools that represent the views and interests of elite policy-makers rather than cultivating multiple visions of schooling that will emerge from public deliberations about what schools should be.  

For school reform to be broad, lasting, and effective, local school communities must have the opportunity and authority to address the issues that most directly affect the conditions of teaching and learning, such as: inadequate and inequitable funding; control of budgets, staffing, scheduling, curriculum, and assessment; and broad involvement of parents and community in the school. The focus on test scores merely diverts our attention from the crucial issues that must be addressed if our schools are to be transformed. Rather than relying on the coercive power of tests, people truly interested in improving schools would be better served by placing their faith in the people who know the students best. 


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