Teaching by the numbers

January 17, 2013

Standardized testing has more to do with controlling teachers than it does with improving learning, explains New York City teacher Brian Jones.

TEACHERS AT Garfield High School in Seattle have taken a bold and historic action by collectively refusing to administer the state-mandated standardized assessment known as the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). As the story of their struggle spread last week, messages of solidarity began pouring in from all over the country. An online petition filled with signers, and e-mail listserves lit up.

The real purpose of the MAP test is not to measure student "growth," but to evaluate teachers. As it consumes a tremendous amount of time, energy and money--and is of no consequence to the students--the idea of boycotting it makes perfect sense. But what about higher-stakes exams? What about the exams that do decide student promotion? The Garfield High School staff felt emboldened by the specific circumstances of the MAP test, but their action touched a nerve because of the general problems with high-stakes standardized testing.

As the tests spread and the consequences associated with them rise, absurdities abound. Last year, there was a listening passage on the fourth grade test that I administered which was genuinely perplexing. My colleagues and I could not agree on the "correct" way to interpret the story, yet the fate of my students, our jobs and our entire school rested, in part, on the ability of these 9- and 10-year-olds to do so.

Garfield High School teachers speak out on their decision to reject testing
Garfield High School teachers speak out on their decision to reject testing

I actually liked the story, precisely because it was open to multiple interpretations. But in that case, it's certainly not appropriate for a high-stakes exam! On the other hand, if the story were simpler, flatter, more easily reducible to "right" and "wrong" interpretations, then it wouldn't be worth reading. It certainly wouldn't be worthwhile spending weeks preparing students for the exam by reading such stale passages.

The solution to this dilemma is not to develop better tests, but to tear down the whole enterprise of high-stakes standardized assessment and replace it with authentic assessments that are organic to the process of real teaching and learning.

In sum, the attempt to quantify learning and teaching in a standardized manner is extremely expensive; takes up weeks and, in some places, months of time in school; narrows the curriculum; undermines the intrinsic joy of learning; and leads to a culture of corruption and cheating. As a measure of student learning, standardized tests are an extremely limited instrument. As a measure of teacher effectiveness, they are even more flawed.

IF ALL of this testing is so bad for teaching and learning, why is it spreading? The shift toward using student data to evaluate teachers is part of a larger trend of restructuring public education to align it with the rest of the economy. As one of the last heavily unionized groups of workers in the country, teachers stand in the way of privatization. And to the extent that they are self-governed, self-motivated and enjoy professional autonomy, teachers are a "bad" example for other workers.

Even though it may not make for great teaching or genuine learning, high-stakes standardized testing is spreading because it is the perfect tool for controlling and disciplining teachers--and for training the next generation to internalize the priorities of the system.

The attempt to quantify and track every aspect of an employee's "performance" is not new. The biggest names in a variety of industries--Wal-Mart, UPS, Goldman Sachs and the Huffington Post, for example--have all transformed their operations to respond to "real-time" data and have the ability to monitor their employees and their output "by the numbers." More and more workers in a growing variety of jobs and occupations find themselves struggling to "keep their numbers up" (in productivity) or to "keep their numbers down" (in time spent on any given task).

As teachers and school administrators are forced to focus more and more of their time on "the numbers" (test scores), they effectively help to train students (the next generation of workers) to internalize this new labor regime. Students learn that the tests themselves are the purpose of school. Even reading, which should be associated with joy, creativity, imagination and deep thought, becomes an activity that has only one, true purpose--generating a test score.

Students internalize the idea that the tests are fair and scientific, and that their role, as students, is not to interrogate the tests, but to measure up against them.

And perhaps most of all, students learn to accept the idea that their fate should be linked to the tests. For low numbers, they can be held back from graduation; their teacher can be reprimanded, publicly shamed and even fired; and their school can be closed and even privatized. For high numbers, they can graduate, their teacher might receive a raise and praise, and the school will be allowed to exist for another year. Good things come to those who keep their numbers up; bad things happen to those who don't.

THE TESTING regime is sold to the public as quality control--as if the only way to ensure great teaching is surveillance, and as if the only way to surveil the teachers is to have a standardized means of quantifying student learning. But all of this data gathering amounts to a profoundly boring and stressful school experience. Contrary to all of the anti-teacher union rhetoric, teachers and students have overlapping interests.

Stressed-out teachers are not better teachers. It turns out that teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions. Rather than benefitting students, the spread of standardized testing creates greater alienation and frustration for everyone. As it spreads to earlier grades, parents become increasingly alarmed at the way the tests ruin the early childhood experience.

High-stakes standardized testing may be the Achilles heel of education "reform" in that its growth frustrates the entire school community and draws teachers, parents and students into a common struggle.

Of course, not every attempt to quantify our lives and work is a nefarious plan to extract more sweat from our collective brows. Statistical data can be useful and, in the right hands, can illuminate social crises, raise awareness, highlight trends and even point to solutions. In the wrong hands, though, "data" is too often used as means of labor coercion--a kind of virtual slaver's whip.

Historically speaking, coercive labor regimes have a built-in flaw: the tendency for those on the receiving end to fight back. The teachers at Garfield High School have pushed back against a specific test, but their impact is far greater. Some day, the entire edifice of high-stakes standardized testing will fall. When it does, the boycott at Garfield High School may be remembered as one of the first cracks in the wall.

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