How The Testing Culture Ruins Education

Atlanta Public Schools is a district that has won awards for its high test scores.  Now it has been revealed that those awards were predicated on a fraud: there was cheating going on.  But that isn’t even the shocking part.  The real scandal is, it wasn’t the students who were doing the cheating, it was the teachers and principals.

And according to the report in the Christian Science Monitor, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened – it’s only the largest of such scandals to be unearthed as yet.

So the big question is, when will our state and federal departments of education get it through their heads that over-reliance on standardized testing is detrimental to education?


I had a personal encounter with the dangers of standardized testing just a few years ago when I was working as a substitute teacher.  I was in a junior high school classroom for six weeks, trying to teach math.  For much of the time, it was like repeatedly bashing my head against a brick wall: no matter how hard I tried or how many different ways I explained things, I just couldn’t seem to get the message across.  But was testing season, and I had to get the students as prepared as I could.

I finally went to one of the other teachers for help, and while I was rather appalled at his suggestion, I gave it a shot.  The strategy basically involved boiling the lesson down to the lowest common denominator: teach them what they need to know to answer the questions on the test.

The only thing sadder than using that strategy to “teach” math was the fact that it worked.  The students didn’t have the background necessary to understand the underlying concepts, and they didn’t care – they just wanted to know how to solve the problems.  The longer I used the strategy, the clearer it became that this was the method these students were used to.

I understand the arguments in favor of standardized testing – we do need to hold teachers accountable for their performance, and it is pretty much impossible to do that without some sort of standard to measure by – especially when we’re running the public education system at the national level.  But we have reached the point in America where the drawbacks far outweigh any benefits our schools receive from standardized testing.  These tests, instead of motivating teachers to do better, motivate teachers to simplify curriculum until they are no longer teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, and are instead teaching students how to take and pass a standardized test…or, even worse, are not only teaching to the test, but are also cheating to improve their students’ test scores.

The simple truth is, standardized tests are not helping matters, and while poor quality teachers do account for some of the problems in the US education system, the cultural shift that the United States has gone through over the past 50-60 years is more to blame: children don’t respect their elders, parents aren’t parenting their children and aren’t as involved in the education of their children, and everyone seems to assume that the public education system is equipped to pick up the slack, even though that is not the case.

The solution is unclear, but what is abundantly clear is that it is time for America to change the way we look at education.


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