“IF YOU DON’T TEST IT, THEY WON’T TEACH IT!”
The following is a paragraph from the introduction to my book, Good Behavior and Audacity. It describes the problem we had in the arts branch dealing with the fact that schools prioritized standardized test scores above all else in budget and scheduling decisions around instruction in the arts.
Standardized testing proved to be by far the greatest hurdle for us. There is a terrible irony in this. There is no discipline in which authentic assessment—both self-assessment and audience assessment—is more embedded, at every stage, than in the discipline of art making; and yet it is the most difficult to objectively evaluate. Because of this, when the testing fever overwhelmed education in the 90s, I naively thought the arts would be spared. I was wrong. To quote my boss in the Arts Branch at the time, “If you don’t test it, they won’t teach it.”
He was tragically correct. Of course you can evaluate performance in the arts: using elegant and precise rubrics, you can avoid the taint of subjectivity and give a grade to a project. But rubric-based evaluations are designed for in-class use, with a profound connection to the individual student working to improve through practice. Partly because of the element of subjectivity, but mostly because of the astronomical expense of grading such projects, it is not possible to create such a test as a standard measure across huge populations. We made valiant efforts to design and pilot cunning multiple-choice questions that could be included on national standardized tests, but they always boiled down to simple vocabulary. They did nothing to encourage the teaching of creativity. And yet history, common sense, and all the new research on brain development tell us that engagement in the arts is essential to the healthy development of cognition: or, as Plato and Mulcaster both said, the arts ‘frame the mind for learning.’
Test scores began to decline in the early 70s, at exactly the time the arts were being cut across the country, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the policy makers that there might be a connection.
Today it really seems that all they are learning is how to take tests. Is that really all we want them to learn?
And this, from my final chapter:
Here is where I permit myself a tirade. Testing. I have the chops to say what I am going to say. I’ve spent years in the classroom, and I share my concern with tens of thousands of teachers who have observed classrooms numbed by incessant test preparation. I’ve witnessed the terror in seven-year-old faces, the tears, the vomiting, the quivering chins, and the shaking hands (as though today’s children did not have enough cause for stress in their innocence). I’ve seen teenagers wilt with boredom after hours of studying test-taking skills and simply disappear into daydreams or rebel with outrageous behaviors. I know brilliant adults who have internalized a “below average” assessment of their own intellect for their entire lives because of one totally irrelevant SAT or IQ score. I’ve attended days of professional development, with free lunch provided, teaching me how to legally boost test scores. I know all the tricks. It’s legal but it’s still cheating! None of it, not one second of it, constitutes what I consider education.
It goes without question that there must be accountability, which is why educators have embraced academic standards. Standards give teachers, students, and their parents an observable measure for developmentally appropriate achievement, and as such they provide guideposts for instruction. The problem comes with their marriage to standardized tests and the elevation of these tests to a level far beyond what was intended by their developers. There are many ways to assess achievement, but authentic assessment is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Standardized tests, although they do not differentiate for learning modalities and give only a very narrow slice of the whole picture, are easy and relatively cheap (and the word “relatively” should be used with a footnote here, because educational testing is a billion dollar industry). They are tools that serve a limited purpose in narrowly focused studies to be used by educators in the context of their own practice in schools or classrooms. But making their results public, exposing innocent children to them, broadcasting them on banners on school fences, using them as bludgeons to punish struggling schools and hard working teachers, and making them the basis for financial rewards and the data for research in achievement is unconscionable abuse. Schools trying to educate under a shadow of “accountability” anxiety based on standardized tests abandon what they know about authentic instruction and resort to drill and kill. Classrooms suffer. Teachers suffer. Children who are turned into data points and who internalize the deceptive message of their test scores may suffer emotional damage that is irreversible.
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