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Teaching to tests fails to give students real education

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Imagine a school with no recess, no art or music classes, no phys-ed. They're deemed non-essential.

What's the rationale? The only valuable part of a school is teaching students how to test well. Forget learning, forget growth, forget problem-solving. We want kids who take standardized tests and get high scores. That's what matters. Some other factory can churn out individuals whose strengths and differences are valued.

And these are precisely the dangers of accountability: When schools are ranked, studies show teaching -- good teaching, the kind that makes kids excited -- suffers.

In fact, in the United States, where accountability and high-stakes testing have become something of an art form, there are innumerable cases of teachers actually being directed by their administration to curtail their teaching of certain subjects in order to focus on drill and practice. This is not education.

The provincial government has rejected pressure to collect and publish data on student achievement. This is a sentiment that would be endorsed by most researchers. Consider the position taken by Neill and Medina in an article published in Phi Delta Kappan some years ago. They point out comparing scores serves to create rival schools and educators who are far less likely to collaborate.

The notion of ranking schools is rooted in good intentions. We recognize schools can be better than they are. However, ranking as a way to improve is based on the erroneous assumption schools already possess what they need to be great but simply aren't, and that all they need is an educational kick in the rear in the form of public embarrassment.

As education critic Alfie Kohn says, "The idea that holding a gun to people's heads will motivate them to improve is psychologically naive, to say the least." Striving for excellence is not a foremost strategy when you're under threat. What are you likely to do? Teach to the test, not take risks, and above all, focus on drill and memorization.

Further to this, it has been well-documented competition results in anxiety, which in turn leads to lower performance. This has been cited as one of the causes of poor performances on the part of students. If the end result is the mark, why take a risk or tackle a task at which you might fail?

So what is a parent to do? What if your child attends a school that has not tested well? Well, for starters, you can avoid meaningless comparisons with other schools and recognize marks, as a gauge of anything, are completely flawed. Although they remain the driving force behind much of what we do in education, research shows just how little value they have other than ranking students. Do they reflect understanding or engagement? Generally not.

If a teacher is pressured to raise the marks in his or her class, the result is a reliance on traditional teaching or what is commonly known as "back to basics." This type of teaching relies heavily on memorization and drill, things we know decrease motivation, interest in learning, and quality.

What should a parent do? Speak to the teacher and get an idea of how that teacher assesses understanding. Speak to the administration at your child's school. If they see themselves as leaders of leaders, they should have a very good idea of what is going on in the classroom, how students are being assessed, and what that mark means. A 55 per cent grade by itself has very little value and even less when compared with another school. Pressuring a teacher to raise a 55 per cent grade to 75 per cent will not result in the kind of learning you want for your child.

For this reason, PISA scores should be taken for what they are: a test with so many cultural, social and economic factors in play it becomes very difficult to treat with the gravitas it is being given. Kohn sums it up when he says, "The fact is that any one-shot, pencil-and-paper standardized test -- particularly one whose questions are multiple choice -- offers a deeply flawed indicator of learning as compared with authentic classroom-based assessments."

Access to public data will not promote excellence. What it will do is perpetuate a system already far too reliant on marks and competition. What we need is emphasis on understanding on the part of students. Ranking schools is not a way to do this.


Neil Dempsey is a vice-principal at a K-8 school in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2014 A13

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