What's Wrong With the Test-Centered School?

While politicians and policy-makers have made mouth noises about the amount of time spent on the Big Standardized Test and the prep therefor, those elements only scratch the surface of how test-and-punish policy has messed with American schools.

At various times in ed history we have talked about teacher-centered schools, community-centered schools and student-centered schools. What we have seen over the past decade is the rise of the test-centered school.

In the test-centered school, regardless of what its mission or vision statement may say, test results are the guiding force. In the test-centered school, there are remediation courses, but these are not remedial courses in the classic sense of trying to help students who are behind in their comprehension of content. These are test prep courses, in which students' time and attention is devoted to practicing the skills of test-taking. Perhaps the school uses a program package so that students can work independently on computers, drilling multiple choice responses to test-style questions, over and over and over and over and over, day after day after day after day after mind-numbing day, until the students have been taught that English and/or math (because these remedial courses are never required in non-tested departments) are miserable disciplines filled with nothing but drudgery and boredom.

These remediation courses will have two other side effects. First, they will fill up the student's schedule, so that students who have not done well enough on the test must take Remediation 101 instead of shop or art or band or accounting. These will be the students whose strengths are not English and math, but they will not be able to fully pursue their strengths, but must instead spend their school day focusing on their weakness, their areas of failure. If you have never spent your days being bad at something, you may not understand just how corrosive it is to the spirit.

If you want to get a sense of how this is, just imagine switching the classes involved. "Sorry Pat, but no Junior Honors English class for you until you can finally play a decent B-flat scale on trumpet," said no school ever. "Sorry, Mrs. Bagswatter, but Chris can't sign up for AP Calculus until that physical fitness test is passed in PE."

The other side effect will be from what the school can offer. Your English and math teachers will have to make room in their schedules for Test Prep 101, which means they don't have time to teach any elective courses.

In fact, running a test-centered school system doesn't just affect how time in school is used, but how the school is actually structured. Middle schools in particular may feel the push in test-centered districts (though I had a hard time finding current research about middle school structure trends and I've folded in anecdotal through-the-grapevine stuff here). One tradition of middle schools is for seventh and eighth grades, but that leaves the whole school ranking based on the results of eighth-grade testing. So districts may feel test-based pressure to move sixth- and even fifth-graders under the middle-school roof to help with school ratings, or shift to old-school K-8 schools, sidestepping the middle-school rating issue entirely.

Bottom line: we have districts that are looking at structural changes based not on what's best for the students or even what works best with the available physical plants. They are looking at structural changes primarily based on what will have the best effect on their test-based accountability measures.

In a test-based school, it comes down to the test scores and accountability measures. In Pennsylvania, AP test results can count toward a school's ranking. Many states are now moving toward using SATs as the BS Test for high school ranking. Consequently, where decisions about students taking college entrance exams might have been based on what the student needs (will the AP credit be any use to her at her chosen school? Does he even intend to go to college?), they are now based on how the student's choice affects the school. This spring, somewhere in America, a high school principal is going to say, "I don't care if the credit isn't going to be any use at Pat's school in Pat's program—that kid's the strongest student we have in that department. You get Pat in there to take that damn AP test, whether Pat wants to or not."

And that ultimately is the problem with test-centered schools; the relationship between the school and the student is turned upside down. Instead of asking, "How does this help us meet the educational needs of our students?" administrators ask, "How will this affect our test scores?" In a test-centered school, the school is not there to serve the students; the students are there to meet the needs of the school. And no, there isn't a scintilla of evidence that test prep serves student needs or that test results are an important indicator of their education.

Maybe we offer bribes. Maybe we restructure school. Maybe we drill forever. Maybe we make it clear that we will accept no excuses. It doesn't matter. The students are there to crank out the scores the school wants, and policies are measured by that metric—will this get students to give us the scores we need? That's separated from the question, "Does this meet the students' educational needs" by a chasm so large you could lose the entire U.S. education system in it.

Sure, much is riding on test-driven policies these days. But at some point, administrators and leaders and parents and classroom teachers have to step up and stand for the needs of the students before all else. Because if we aren't going to stand up for our students, what are we going to stand up for?


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