Heresy! A Teacher Likes A Standardized Test

Earlier today, I referenced an interview with Jonathan Kozol, the education reformer who, along with his stirring critique of economic inequality in our schools, has consistently opposed the negative repercussions of standardized testing. In this latest interview, Kozol said:

The testing agenda that Duncan is perpetuating is segregative and divisive in yet another sense. In inner-city schools, where principals are working with a sword of threats and punishments above their heads — for fear that they’ll be fired if they cannot “pump the scores” — they inevitably strip down the curriculum to those specific items that are going to be tested, often devoting two-thirds of the year to prepping children for exams….

So culture is starved. Aesthetics are gone. Joy in learning is regarded as a bothersome distraction. “These kids don’t have time for joy, or whim, or charm, or inquiry! Leave whim and happiness to the children of the privileged.

It’s devastating, and as cheating scandals across the nation have helped demonstrate, it’s true. There is incredible pressure in school districts across the nation to prove proficiency on these tests, even though there are so many logistical and theoretical problems with them.

That thought in mind, I happened across the 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress sample questions for 2010 today. I expected to find the kind of questions I hate to give as a teacher—soulless, rudimentary exercises in effort rather than intellect. Instead, I found questions that I want students to be able to answer, questions that required some knowledge about current events and culture.

While they’re not incredibly difficult, they’re appropriate measures of core knowledge.

You can take a look at the sample questions here.

Does my approval of the questions mean that I think Kozol is wrong? No. Test-mania focused on exam preparation (especially the kind of objective, multiple choice measurements used for measuring Annual Yearly Progress for NCLB) absolutely drives critical thought and engagement out of classrooms, especially in low-performing schools under the threat of sanctions. They’re simply not capable of completely assessing a student’s capabilities or knowledge.

Yet good test questions that measure core knowledge do matter. We need to ensure that our students are aware of the fundamentals of Geography, English, History, Science, and even Math. Finding a way to teach and measure these skills—while preserving student critical thought—is the real challenge going forward.

I should offer the disclaimer that I am not a Social Studies teacher, although one colleague does mock me for teaching her curriculum in my Debate and AP Language classes.

Do yourself a favor: read Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation.