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Dave Keane
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I would argue that the tests serve a purpose. If one uses them wisely as a guide rather than a focus they can aid in the overall improvement of our schools. The problem we have in our profession is that we are hoop jumpers. We think that if we can just anticipate which hoops our students will be asked to jump through we can improve their achievement on the tests. The focus is on the test rather than on learning and then blame the tests when they reflect a lack of success. I started education in the era of Outcomes Based Education which immediately was replaced/repackaged as Standards Based Education. Both initiatives gathered a group of content specialists to select the facts (identified as benchmarks) that each child should learn by the end of each grade level. The science teaching experts identified the science benchmarks, the math experts the math, etc. These experts came up with enough "essential" information to fill about 24 years of education and then encouraged teachers to try to cover it all in 12. Stressing that we needed to cover less with more depth. Then tests were developed tests to ensure that students knew these "essential" facts. Throughout our extensive efforts, duplicated in 49 states and 321 different school districts in Iowa (I am from Iowa and so I feel justified in this critical comment). While educators focused on what specific content should be addressed, the world was changing. Our focus in education is on preparing students by identifying facts hoping we get the right ones so the students can be successful on a test. We are critical of standardized tests because they point out our inability to show gains with all students. We in education have known for years that we have not been meeting the needs of all students. The tests just point this out to everyone else. We then expend a great deal of time and energy trying to make the test scores look better rather than improving our educational system. To make things even worse, we then make excuses about the lack of achievement demonstrated by students of color or low socio-economic status. I am not sure that this is news to anyone, but you would be hard pressed to convince me that being from a poor family or having parents who have not attended college equates to an inability to learn. We complain about how the students are ill prepared to be successful in our current system, but don't do much to change the system or even acknowledge that what we need is a new system. We have had students failing in the current system for years. It is just recently that this has been bothersome to us because many of the jobs which those who left our system prior to earning a diploma are disappearing. Throughout the twenty years I have been in education we have made attempts to tweak the system. To create a gradual evolutionary change when what we really need is a revolutionary one. We continue to teach in content specific silos when we should have broken down those curricular barriers long ago and engaged students in learning which mimics the world the students will face in their future. We continue to operate in ineffective and inefficient ways. We know that there are natural alignments between curricular areas, but still lack the willingness to capitalize on these. How often do social studies and language arts courses each ask students to engage in research projects? How often do they discuss or even look at similar time periods or literature? In teaching physics I spent time teaching vector addition and methods of graphing despite the fact that these topics were also covered in their mathematics courses. The schools of the future will not require English and Social Studies credits for graduation but rather literacy and research skills. They won't require science or mathematics credits, but rather that students demonstrate their ability to engage in scientific inquiry and the ability to communicate in the language of mathematics. I truly believe that students should be allowed to demonstrate mathematical skills and concepts in vocational like coursework. They should graduate based on their ability to demonstrate skills and concepts rather than an accumulation of credits with grades that communicate little to anyone. The tests are not the problem, our inability to make a significant shift in our educational system is. Efforts like those of you who post on this and other sites like it are crucial to enact the needed changes that will allow all students to enjoy success. The current system is leaving students behind, the tests are just reminding us of that fact. We can blame the tests all we want, but they are not what is keeping us from making the needed changes. If our students all were graduating with the skills they need to be successful, no one would give a crap about how they were all doing on some standardized tests. The sad fact is, they are not all graduating with the skills they need nor are the needs of all children being addressed in our schools.
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