Once upon a time, great learning took place in school. New concepts, developing creativity, designing experiments, and discovering talents were all part of the learning. This was “great” as in fun, not “great” as in big and boring. Best of all, students enjoyed the process, and teachers enjoyed facilitating it.
Then along came testing. Not testing to discover students’ needs or to assess their aptitude. No, this is testing to achieve adult gratification. For principals, it’s bragging rights, as in “My school’s better than yours.” For politicians, it’s a bid for votes as they promise to “make schools accountable” through tests. Even for some parents standardized tests are a way to say, “My child’s smarter than yours.” Yet while aduls achieve all this personal gain, what do students get?
They get a hard way to go. Progress, for example, no longer matters. Instead, if students’ test scores don’t reach grade level, the voices from on high declare everyone involved a failure. They ignore all the progress made that year, regardless of how significant it might be. However, for students, if their hard work doesn’t count, what incentive do they have to continue striving? Not much.
Students also gain high anxiety. Tests are often the sole determining factor for promoting students to the next grade. In high school, graduation depends on them. So, there’s no wonder that extreme stress accompanies standardized tests. The irony is that tests are counterproductive, as the high anxiety they create is certainly not conducive to the high scores worshipped by test proponents.
On the other hand, students also gain test-taking skills. Day after day of practice tests tend to do that. Yet when is that skill realy useful in life? Yes, it’s a great skill for entrance exams, from college to grad school, but the truth is that standardized tests have no real value outside of school. So, what do students really gain?
The overall effect of this test taking is to quash everything that makes learning enticing. Instead, learning becomes a series of tedious, repetitive and mind numbingly boring practice tests. Meanwhile, competition for high scores becomes the main point of education. And students are left to wonder not just the point of tests but of school in general.
Of course, those who give tests that kind of power know nothing about these consequences. That’s because they know nothing about students. How could they when they have no contact with them? From superintendents to politicians, they live in a rarefied world of education theory with no real-world interaction with students. That’s a problem.
Yet the solution is simple: Use tests as a learning tool. Instead of wielding test data as a weapon against teachers and students, let teachers use it for assessment. The goal would be “Show me what you know, so I can help you with what you don’t know.” The information gathered then informs lesson plans, encouraging teachers to differentiate those plans for their own specific students, and making learning exciting, inviting and relevant again. That’s real learning, the kind that draws students in, the kind they can use in the real world.
It’s time to give tests a background role and get back to learning. Both students and teachers would benefit, to say nothing of how vibrant and dynamic the learning environment would be. And isn’t that what school should be again?