Let me tell you just how bad it can get – this relentless striving towards the ‘benchmark’. It reaches a pinnacle in the creation of the Pacing Guide. This nightmarish document becomes the focus of everything the teacher does in the classroom.
How is it created? Not by evil trolls beavering away in subterranean caves, lit by the flickering fires of hell. No. It is created by well-meaning souls who believe they are doing Something Good for education.
And it’s done more or less like this.
A careful examination of past standardized tests reveals the sections of the mandated curriculum that have been tested most frequently as well as the number of questions that relate to each area of the curriculum.
Each section of the curriculum is given a loading based largely on the proportion of questions it attracted in these past tests. This analysis will form the basis of the content and timing of the Pacing Guide.
A curriculum is developed for each grade level based on this analysis, making sure that previously untested areas of the curriculum are not left out entirely, but ensuring that the topics attracting the biggest number of questions also get the most time.
The school year is broken up into, for example, nine week units. The curriculum is similarly divided.
A test is devised for the end of each nine week period. Its format will closely resemble the high stakes test to be taken at the end of the school year. It will test exactly what was in the nine week curriculum and its questions will reflect the same priorities that went into the decisions about the content focus – the more likely it is to be tested, the more we focus on it.
The data obtained from these nine week tests will be provided to principals quickly so that they can call to account every teacher whose students are not meeting expectations. There will be an accountability meeting with each of these teachers in the principal’s office.
We now have a system in place that provides a ‘laser-like’ focus on the material to be tested by the State. From time to time an Assistant Superintendent will visit the school and pop into classrooms. Her task is to make sure that on this particular Tuesday, or Friday, or whenever, every teacher is teaching exactly what is expected according to the Pacing Guide. The teachers know better than to deviate from the Pacing Guide because its content will be tested at the end of the nine weeks and they will be held to account.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KIDS?
Let’s get something very clear here and now.
The role of the kids is to pass the tests so the schools are accredited and the district isn’t penalized.
The students’ task is to make sure the district doesn’t look bad.
This is how bad it can and has become.
It doesn’t matter if there is a violent thunder storm rolling about over the top of the school, fascinating the kids. We can’t talk or read or write about that. It’s Wednesday and the Pacing Guide says we should be learning about Mali.
It doesn’t matter that James has just come back from a holiday in Mexico and saw a parade on the Day of the Dead. He has photos, and a head full of questions. But it’s Monday and the Pacing Guide says we need to work hard on understanding the water cycle.
It doesn’t matter that Timmy still doesn’t understand the multiplication of fractions. He has to move on or he won’t have covered the rest of the topics by the end of the nine weeks. He can come back after school, at the weekend, in the summer … to plug the gaps in his understanding. We know that the building of mathematical understanding is a cumulative process and a misunderstanding now will undermine everything that comes next, but we just have to move on.
Yes, this is how bad it gets.
Perhaps the greatest evil of high stakes standardized testing is that it takes our eyes away from the children and focuses them instead on the tests themselves.
Children become sources of data.
Learning becomes something that is cut, sliced, packaged and weighed.
Until we rid ourselves of this impediment to education and find valid, humane, child centred forms of assessment, testing will continue to STOP our children from learning.