No gain from the pain of testing

October 16, 2009 at 2:39 pm Leave a comment

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HIGH_STAKES testing on the rise since 2002 and No Child Left Behind, may have lead to more hours spent on reading and math in schools, but there have been no increases in learning.

And the curriculum, particularly in the humanities and liberal arts, has narrowed. “Today may actually be worse for poor children in the US than at any time in the last half century. This is because the lower classes are being kept from the liberal arts and humanities curricula by design,” a respected thinker on pedagogy told a key conference this summer.

“The newest difficulty in promoting the arts and humanities in the curriculum is due to the use of high-stakes testing,” Prof David Berliner told an international conference on redesigning pedagogy in Singapore.

“We need to remember that when administrators and teachers concentrate their efforts on raising only a few skills, they detract from the talent pool for individual and national success in an economy that will demand adaptability.”

In his paper the Regents’ Professor in the College Of Education at Arizona State University argues the result of high-stakes testing has been to increasingly narrow the curriculum, at a time when the challenges of the future demand the broadest possible liberal arts curriculum.

“The decrease in exposure to certain curricula is a rational response to high-stakes testing. But this decrease in exposure to a varied curriculum is of great concern as we contemplate what the 21st century might have in store for our youth.

“Compared to the past, the future is likely to be more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous — A VUCA world for our children to face. I think adaptation to such a world requires a citizenry with the broadest possible curriculum, not a narrow one that constricts the skills of the youth because of a need to demonstrate accomplishments on a small set of assessments.”

“A 21st century workplace is likely to value such social skills as active and tolerant listening, helping each another to define problems and suggesting courses of action, giving and receiving constructive criticism, and managing disagreements. But in today’s high-stakes school environments, collaborative work where such skills can be developed is seen less frequently than ever because such work always means a loss of time that could be used for preparation to take high-stakes reading and mathematics tests.”

The narrowing curriculum is particularly undermining the education of the poor he argues. “America apparently has developed an apartheid-like system of education.”

“Using the argument that we must get their test scores up, we in the US are designing curriculum for poor children, often poor children of color but certainly, numerically, for poor white children, that will keep them ignorant and provide them with vocational training, at best. Their chances of entrance to college and middle class lives are being diminished, and this is all being done under the banner of “closing the gap,” a laudable goal, but one that has produced educational policies with severe and negative side effects.

Focussing on research by Hong and Youngs (2008) the response to high-stakes testing in Chicago and Texas, Prof Berliner says:

“In Chicago the researchers found that high-stakes testing seemed to narrow the curriculum and make it harder for students to acquire higher-order thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills. In Texas, it was found that schooling changed in ways that emphasized rote learning, not broad intellectual skills.”

A study by Lipman (2004) of Chicago schools found that the more affluent students in Chicago received a much richer and more intellectually challenging curriculum than did the poor children in Chicago. Poor minority children, in particular, were required to memorize fragmented facts and information, and they were constantly taught simple test-taking techniques.

“Lipman is probably quite right when she says that this differential access to high-quality curriculum will have significant consequences in terms of the social inequalities we will observe in the future. White students who possess a great deal of the cultural capital valued by schools are going to be much more likely to get to college and thus more likely to attain higher status through higher paying jobs. But low SES and minority students in Chicago’s schools are much more likely to end up in lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs. The decisions about curriculum and instruction in Chicago and other urban districts results in access to rigorous curriculum for some, but not for others, thus allowing for the continuation of the current unequal social structure.”

What to do?

“Change the tests used for school accountability under NCLB. Currently almost all the tests used to comply with NCLB make heavy use of multiple-choice items and thus are designed to reward memory of decontextualized bits of knowledge. But we know that tests with high-stakes attached to them drive curriculum and instruction. So the construction of tests that measure things like creativity and critical thinking need to be designed so teachers have tests worth teaching to.

Simply using tests with open-ended items has also been found to change teacher’s instructional behavior. Under those conditions teachers more frequently required their students to explain their answers in the classroom, and the teachers used more open-ended tests in their own classrooms as they tried to give students experience that would help them on the end-of-year tests.”

In conclusion Prof Berliner argues: “The same politicians and business persons that want high-stakes testing to be the cornerstone of a school accountability system also want 21st century skills developed. They do not yet understand that they cannot have both at the same time. These are incompatible goals.

“It seems to me that all but the most privileged students come into public schools where the pedagogy may actually be closer to that of the 19th rather than the 21st century. In schools for the poor, Dickens’s (1854/1868) wonderfully written caricature of a teacher, Mr. Gradgrind, still lives. Gradgrind said:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

“But it is not just pedagogy that needs improvement. Many of our students receive too limited a curriculum for dealing with what the eminent psychologist Howard Gardner (1999) reminds us are always the most important questions facing humankind: what is true, rather than false; what is beautiful, rather than ugly or Kitschy, and what is good rather than compromised, or evil.

“A broad liberal arts curriculum is needed to deal with these eternal questions. But we in the US are far from providing that now, and moving further away from that model as high-stakes testing changes what and how we teach.

“No one really knows what 21st century skills are needed to foster success for individuals and nations. But developing critical thinking, engaging in activities that require problem solving and creativity, and doing individual and collaborative projects of complexity and duration, are all good candidates for helping each child and both of our nations to thrive” told the teachers and educationalists gathered in Singapore.

Prof Berliner’s complete paper can be read at

In this review Prof Berliner’s citations have been removed for readability.

Entry filed under: Testing, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , .

Relax… and watch the kids shoot some squid or crash a car Take it nice and slow

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