I’m writing the final essay for my course at Athabasca University. I’ve done rather well so far, good marks and all that. I’ve also learnt a thing or two, as well as realizing there’s a whole heap I don’t know. As Einstein said “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” So as the assignments have gone on I have found them harder to write not easier. Probably because the more I read and write about education, the more there is to think about, to the point where there’s almost too much to think about. This final essay is a case in point. It’s a pretty huge subject area touching on equity and social justice, inclusive education, multiculturalism and how best to educate students, particularly those who have been traditionally disadvantaged. One of the big questions it poses is how to get rid of barriers and biases?
Turns out that one of the biggest hindrances to an equitable education is standardized testing. Standardized testing is a massive issue across the western world. Educators tend to be against, politicians for and we all know who wins that one, but I digress.
Now bear with me. I recently read this fascinating article in the New York Times by Elizabeth Green titled “Why do Americans stink at Math?” It basically tells the story about a Japanese teacher who in the late 70’s came across a different way to teach math, idea’s that had coincidentally been created / discovered in America. Anyway long story short (and it’s worth reading the whole thing here), the Japanese embraced these methods and consequently their students score well in international math comparisons. America didn’t embrace them and as we know have some of the lowest scores in the developed world, scores which are only getting worse.
What then you ask does this have to do with standardized testing? Well, it got me thinking. Back to the math. Most of math teaching in the US is of an “I, We, You,” order. That is to say the teacher shows the class an example (I), the class then works through a problem on the board led by the teacher (We), and then the students get to work though a worksheet of problems by themselves (You). This is the way most of us remember Math and I for one can attest to it being pretty useless for me. But there is another way. One that could be called “You, Y’all, We.” Rather than showing the students how it is done, they have a go themselves, then in peer groups and then finally as a class. In this way, it has been discovered that students get a much better understanding of the subject as well as being more excited about it.
The problem is teaching math like this, involves a very different skill set from the first, more traditional method. A skill set that would need to be learned. My point is while it was being learned what happens to the standardized test results? What happens when the scores for your school dip while the teachers and staff gets up to speed with this new approach to teaching math? Who would want to change in the first place if your school was doing fine with its test scores? Perhaps if your scores were bad and you had nothing to loose then why not try, but really that’s no way to approach education. If there is best practice out there, that is known to improve outcomes then we should be using them. If standardized testing is getting in the way of better practice then, it’s another reason why the whole common core, standardized testing, neo-liberal, market-driven education reforms should be hung out to dry.
In short, here’s the thought that occurred to me. Standardized testing, (amongst other things) isn’t making our schools better, it’s killing innovation and stopping the adoption of best practice. If this is true, and who am I to say either way frankly, but if it is true, then it needs to be changed. It doesn’t have to be this way. Finland doesn’t have any standardized tests until students are 16 and their education system and the achievement of their students is the envy of the world.