Slice of Life Story Day 13 Today I Feel Testy!

I read an article in my newspaper of choice this morning and it encapsulated all that I have feared for so long regarding high stakes testing. Australia has followed the lead of America and gone down the path of high stakes testing in schools. Since 2008 national testing (NAPLAN) has been part of the educational landscape in years 3, 5,7 and 9. It is therefore no surprise to find a 2010 survey of Secondary schools found more than two thirds spent more time on test practice since the Federal government went public with the test results on a dedicated web site called My School.  Some schools have begun spending increasing amounts of time and energy ‘preparing’ students for NAPLAN. The outcome of this is the narrowing of curriculum options and more time devoted to teaching to the test. The problematic ‘test prep’ becomes the panic button by which many teachers operate. They abandon teaching in ways they know to be effective and begin a regime of practices that are soul destroying and just dont stand up to scrutiny about what we know about student engagement. 

Pressure from education bureaucrats to improve results begins to mount. Accompanying this is an ill informed political imperative to ‘fix’ schools. Politicians are the worst thing that can happen to a school system. This sad rhetoric starts to dominate the conversation that surrounds education. Too much reliance has been placed on a highly questionable assessment and schools are being judged on the outcomes resulting from this one off testing. Formative assessment is devalued or worse still not even considered. External assessment reigns supreme.

During my six years living and working in the US I saw nothing that convinced me that this approach works. Decades of testing don’t appear to have improved America’s international educational standing. It has however skewed the curriculum in the direction of literacy and numeracy while narrowing student options in the arts, sciences and humanities. Schools in poorer areas tend to be stigmatized and punished by this testing regime, and this further entrenches disadvantage. Testing reigns over the educaitonal landscape like a schoolyard bully.

The publication of league tables presenting lists of the ‘worst’ schools are great fodder for Rupert Murdoch’s New Limited media outlets. When I first saw this practice in the New York Post, in 2004 I was horrified. I was at that time working to support teachers in one of the middle schools so named. The efforts of that school community to improve the learning outcomes for students received a mugging that particular day. They were angry, demoralized, hurt and totally gutted. They needed a hand up and all they got was a kicking.

 In Australia, the federal government promised that this type of simplistic comparison between schools would not happen, but it is happening! Last week Murdoch’s Herald Sun newspaper (here in Melbourne, Australia) without compunction, published lists of NAPLAN results that compared the top five schools and the bottom five schools. Absolutely no consideration was given to their different profiles, their different needs. Many uninformed people will read this impoverished data and draw erroneous conclusions about the circumstances surrounding these diverse school communities. They will elevate the results of NAPLAN to a position it does not deserve.

I recall Professor Richard Allington, eminent educator and researcher stating in a talk at Columbia University, ‘Thirty years of research have revealed the startling fact that kids are different and yet we persist in making them fit the curriculum instead of the curriculum fitting their needs.’ How true is that?

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I will return to cleaning our new windows and then enjoy the remains of the day…

Link to news article from the Melbourne Age 


  1. Alan
    I resisted "teaching to the test" as much as possible for years, until our ELA scores on our state tests showed that we had not made our "progress" and we may soon in be danger of the state coming in to oversee us.
    I'm not sure if we will get to that point, but that "stick" is enough to get us doing more test prep and we are full bore right now. We have our state tests in two weeks, in fact, and so instead of starting up some new novels, I have been hammering them over the head with how to get ready for the test. That means mapping out strategies, talking through anxieties they have, and working on samples from past years (which the kids find incredible boring).
    Does that make me happy? Nope.
    But I do try to couch it in terms of knowing how to approach any kind of writing response is a good skill, and while the test is what lurks out there, I believe it is still valuable. (I also realize that I am trying to convince myself of this, and not always successfully).
    It's a balancing act: teaching writing and reading for the love of writing and reading, while teaching those skills in a way that still allows them success on assessments. Sometimes, I feel as if I am falling off the balance beam.

  2. I have continued to resist but we too have been put on notice we did not make the grade last year. I am not surprised our third graders did not do well on "the test". It is their first time, they were socially and emotionally needy as a group, and the test is foreign to them as we downplay "paper work". I am sorry to hear your part of the world bought into the American nightmare.

  3. Dear Alan,
    I appreciate that you wrote this as your slice. I am deeply saddened to see our schools abandoning best practices in order to do well on a test that was implemented by individuals who know little about children and less about educating them.
    Thank you for voicing your thoughts,

  4. I, too, resisted teaching to the test until our scores revealed that I had to: my kids could write lovely memoirs and poetry, analyze the books they were reading and write literary essays...but they struggled with the test - the boring test. So I teach "testing" as a genre - we try to figure it out and come up with strategies. Like Kevin, I am not happy about spending class time on this - but it is the reality.
    Today's New York Times ran this oped - food for thought: And there is Diane Ravitch's wonderful book which addresses this, as well: Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.
    Being an educator has become a complicated business these days.

  5. Kevin,
    Testing reigns over the educational landscape like a schoolyard bully.

    I love that line - it speaks so clearly to the whole process. I have learned this week that the National Writing Project, Evan Start and many other successful programs. Years of documented success. Have been eliminated completely from the budget. This makes no sense to me. Why cut programs that are working?

  6. The institutions were supposed to be made for the students, not the students for the institutitons.


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