WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 2015 − It’s no surprise to teachers and parents: A Council of the Great City Schools report has finally confirmed that American children are over-tested.
U.S. primary school students take an average of 112 standardized tests throughout their school careers, while their higher-performing foreign competitors take an average of three standardized tests throughout their entire school careers.
In the American school system, learning useful skills and knowledge has clearly taken a backseat to learning how to mark correct answers on standardized tests. President Obama’s new initiative to limit the amount of time students spend on preparing for standardized testing from an average of 2.3 percent to 2 percent is just the beginning of long overdue education reform.
In many respects, legislation like the No Child Left Behind Law with its rigorous, narrowly focused testing regime, helped usher in a new era of testing − one that moved the country away from constructive reforms. Since 2002, the faulty thinking behind this relentless over-testing has taught an entire generation of young Americans how to answer test questions in the classroom at the expense of learning how to ask and answer questions that cannot be found in a textbook.
Aside from faulty tests measures that understate the value of difficult-to-quantify aspects of education, the problem with the nation’s current fixation on extreme testing is that better performance on the tests is incentivized, not actual learning. To the contrary, the goal of this kind of testing is to ensure that the education of students meets federal standards.
Instead of measuring how well and how quickly students are able to use their newly acquired knowledge and skills, testing has instead turned formal education into a rote training program that forces students to think the way the creators of standardized tests were thinking in order to increase their scores.
This is no different from learning how to beat a video game by following the rules of the game. In fact, video games are becoming more realistic and less reliant on predetermined solutions to challenges, so video games are increasingly better at teaching players critical strategic and problem solving skills. Over-testing, on the other hand, will continue to deprive students of valuable time in the classroom − time arguably better spent by actually learning and practicing those key skills.
Education does need practical standards. A lack of consistency in quality of education has been a major problem in America, which is why this country constantly wrestles with the issue of just what standards are needed and should be applied. As such, some testing is required to ensure students are being educated to a practical and reasonable national standard.
What America does not need are standardized curricula. Teachers hold professional degrees, so they must be held to professional standards and empowered to use their skills to build a curriculum that is best for the needs of their students. In other words, teachers need to be treated as professionals.
The Obama administration’s approach to testing, which aims to assess critical thinking and complex skills, is a move in the right direction. The ability of the actual tests to properly assess the learning and problem solving skills of students will, however, determine the merits of such initiatives as his.
Older school curricula tended to focus on reading writing and arithmetic with an emphasis on teaching students specific information. Because students learn and remember facts best by actually putting them to use, older rote memorization techniques are no longer regarded by many educators as the best approach to education. The capacity of computers to crunch massive amounts of data and the sheer volume of information available on the Internet has significantly diminished the usefulness of this approach to education. In short, today’s contemporary students simply cannot learn everything they need to know in the classroom.
In teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, however, educators were also teaching basic learning skills. For the modern world, however, reading, writing and arithmetic are not enough to function and thrive, but the approach has merit. The focus of education must be on skill learning.
Instead of embracing the standardized test and lifelong learning philosophies that have undermined the greatness of the American education system, the United States must embrace a “learning to learn” education philosophy.
In essence, this means teaching students learning skills similar to reading, writing and arithmetic, except in far more subject areas. In the end, it does not matter how well someone does on a test. It matters how well that person does in life, something strongly related to whether that person can apply his or her knowledge and skill sets to solve problems in the real world. That, and not test scores, is the true value of an education.