I had the chance to chat with School Board member Steve Buel a couple weeks ago about his take on standardized testing in schools. He was a school teacher for many years before he found himself on the board, and has focused much of his energy on changing the education system and bringing more awareness to the side effects of high stakes testing. He has seen a lot of the changes in educational policy over the decades and one thing he wanted to point out to me is that standardized testing is nothing new, rather it is the condition of high stakes that has created all the issues we see today. He said that the problem is that is doesn’t really reflect what the kids are really learning. In classrooms today we see teachers “teaching to the test”, meaning that they are narrowing the curriculum to do so, and sending home worksheets to practice the test. This, however, does not teach the actual information of what is it that a child should know.
He went on to tell me more about state report cards, something that each school has to undergo, and part of it is rating the school on the testing from the year. Focus and priority schools, (a classification for those in the bottom 15 percent) have a team come out and do a school appraisal ( he said this costs about 800,000 dollars, however, I was unclear as to who pays this, or how accurate this number is) which includes interviews of all the faculty, and surveys of the parents. He noted that these reports are practically worthless, and in the reports they do not detail what is happening in school, but rather provide a ‘boiler plate’ where everyone gets the same information, rather than personalizing it to each school in order for them to see what exactly should be worked on in that particular school. He said that the best way to get out of being labeled a ‘priority school’ is to teach to the test, and the reality is that there is only a small amount of bribery and cheating.
The testing isn’t the problem, but there is a testing problem.
Covington Middle school, where he taught for many years, was number one in Washington in their economic group, then the state intervened and told them they needed to implement new curriculum, and was told by the school he needed to teach to the test in order to raise their scores. He tried to avoid doing so, but found he was continually falling behind, and had to start teaching what they wanted.
He sees the whole system as based upon the idea that it’s corporate education, proven by the fact that the government alone is making 350mil off of common core—money given from the government to the testing organization. People stand to make huge amounts of money off of this implementation if testing.
Steve is a founding member of Oregon Save Our Schools, a grassroots movement working to promote awareness and change around the corruption in the current education system. I asked him if he felt they had achieved any kind of real, and lasting change, and he replied that they had only succeeded in raising a kind of awareness, but no progress. He noted that they have helped in exposing a lot of programs that the governor is spending the tax payers money on, but because of our current system it is hard to really expose the corruption, due to the fact that all the big money is behind them, and they are able to sell their programs as if it is good for kids. He finds that most teachers don’t know as much about the underbelly of these programs because they simply do not have that kind of time to really dig deep into these issues and try to change it. Unless you really look, you don’t know, and everything can be branded as sounding pretty good.
Because there are so many daunting flaws in the system today, he feels that the only way to create real change is by trying to hurry it along to collapse, and only then will it all turn around.
The problem with many of these educators is that they grab something and go with it all the way, but learning is combinations of things, not one thing or another. He notes that there is no ‘common core’ that everyone should know and learn, and it is extremely difficult to decide what to leave out. Education is a zero sum game, and kids are only in school for a certain about of time, and these standards were and are created by people who have never been educators , yet are required of most public schools in the country.
He said that this system makes sense for people making money, but not really for anyone else; like a educational cult, they tell everyone how it should be done, and that it is the only way, but it is not an all or nothing thing.
Foundational skills (like reading, writing, grammar, basic geometry and fractions) are something everyone agrees on, but where they start to focus off is history. The difficulty is deciding what needs to be taught after the basic foundations, and this becomes a smorgasbord, and in reality this is how America has worked since its foundation. This is why we led the world in innovation, and we shouldn’t have all the children learning the same thing–which is where we are heading. Teachers need to teach to their strengths and be able to create interesting classes. We should love those teachers spending six seeks going deeper into issues and history, rather than three more kids scoring higher on a test. But in the end, there are no easy answers, and things are more complicated than having a set ordeal.