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Dennis Van Roekel on High-Stakes Testing

A Straightjacket for the Mind?

By Dennis Van Roekel
June 3, 2011

Action is heating up on Capitol Hill with both chambers pushing to reauthorize ESEA. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have urged Congress to finish work on ESEA before the start of the next school year. Senate Education Committee Chair Tom Harkin has indicated that he would like to move a bill through the Senate by this summer. And the first in a series of ESEA bills passed the House Education and the Workforce Committee last week.

So, what do teachers want from ESEA renewal?

  1. Public schools that no longer value test-taking skills above all others
  2. Time to foster creativity and critical thinking skills
  3. An end to invalid testing methods that steal the joy from teaching and learning
  4. All of the above

I talked to a first-grade teacher some time back who told me she was retiring, and when I asked her what made her decide that it was time to leave the classroom, she said, “When they handed me the script.” The current iteration of ESEA disregards her professionalism.

What a sad commentary on education in our country – and a powerful illustration of the consequences of NCLB’s teach-to-the-test mentality.

Now comes a new report from the National Research Council that reinforces what educators have long known and experienced. Namely, when we teach only what will appear on multiple choice tests – and when we ask teachers to read from a prepared script and spend no more and no less time on prescribed subject matter – we cheat our children.

And when we use cheap, fill-in-the-bubble tests as the basis for an accountability system – tests that frequently aren't aligned with what's being taught in classrooms – we lose all credibility. It doesn’t make sense to students…educators…parents…or testing experts.

Tests shouldn’t be used to punish schools, as is the case under NCLB, or to pigeonhole students or their teachers. Well-designed tests have a critical role to play in classrooms. We should use assessments to help teachers improve their practice, help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and focus help on the students and subjects that need attention.

No Child Left Behind got the role of testing wrong. As Congress gears up to tackle the next version of ESEA, we must make sure they get it right.

Let’s do the math…

  • Some 44 percent of school districts reported cutting back time from one or more subjects or activities, including social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and recess, at the elementary level to devote more time to preparing for standardized tests.
  • More than 150 education, civil rights, religious and other organizations have called for an overhaul of NCLB and its over-reliance on testing.
  • A 2007 Gallup Poll for Phi Delta Kappan magazine found 52 percent of Americans believe that NCLB is limiting what children are taught and a significant majority believes that more must be done to prepare students to compete in a global economy.

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    NEA President on MSNBC

    NEA President on MSNBC
    Dennis Van Roekel tells a national audience about NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts with Me campaign.