Nel Noddings once wrote, “Education should be emancipatory, not predatory.” Colman McCarthy (2006) writes, “Tests represent fear-based learning, not desire-based learning.” Here then is the problem: If the current trend in American education is, in fact, fear-based and, thereby predatory, how can we think about moving the classroom in the direction of emancipation and a desire-based curriculum?
I find the Hillocks (2002) informative on this point. It is not that testing is, in itself, an evil that we must tolerate. What is problematic is the way in which testing is used in the United States. Several points can be mentioned:
- Current testing does not necessarily test what is purported to be taught. In other words, tests do not align well with curriculum.
- The purpose of testing is not well understood, even by those who are responsible for the selection and administration of the tests. The simple fact is that large scale testing is appropriate when looking at general trends but when used to identify and isolate individual students or schools they are being misused at the deepest levels.
Furthermore, Applebee (1996) argues that curriculum is best understood as a conversation that is locally engaged in and must include multiple stakeholders such as the school community, parents, teachers, administrators, students, and others that have an interest in the development of young people within a community. By imposing external curriculum schools move away from their role as democratic institutions that have as an underlying purpose to develop democratic, critical thinking among the children they serve. Imposed curriculum, furthermore, removes motivation and interest on the part of students and, often, their teachers as well changing the curriculum from one that is based on desire to one based on fear.
Freire (1970) asks us to ask this important question when beginning to analyze the actions of those in power as they develop programs that effect the rest of us: Whose interests are being served by the actions or programs suggested or enacted into law? In the case of high-stakes testing as the principle outcome of the process of education the interests of test developers and publishers are clearly being served by this billion dollar industry. But, are the interests of students, teachers and the community as a whole being served? I argue that they are not if for no other reason than the despotism of the test undermines democratic institutions by modeling an undemocratic approach to teaching and learning the result of which is not lost on students or their teachers. In the end, those of us asking the critical questions are caught up in the futility of attempting to challenge the system that produces legislation in a democratic republic that is, at its core, undemocratic.
Widespread evidence points to schools and school districts cheating on reported scores. Other evidence points to states that revise their state assessments in order to appear to comply with No Child Left Behind. Still more evidence points to misrepresentation of the data reported by the Department of Education and President Bush designed to make NCLB appear to be the cause of progress made in gains reported but when subjected to disaggregation of the data shows that NCLB may not have had any impact on rising scores. Further evidence points to higher dropout rates since the inception of NCLB. Overall the evidence developed by neutral investigators tends toward the negative. Not surprisingly, evidence from conservative and religious right sources consistently sing the praises of NCLB but I question their impartiality. Work that I have reported on shows clearly that the impact of high-stakes testing on teaching has a negative impact when teachers do not consistently reflect on their own teaching practice (Passman, 2001).
It is important that sanity be restored to American education. Reducing the process of education to a single test score does violence to students that can least afford it. Failing to properly fund public education does violence to urban and rural communities that can least afford it (Kozol, 1992). Thinking that we can improve education by creating fear among teachers and their students is short sighted and, in a democracy, unthinkable.
Applebee, A. N. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (Revised ed.). New York: Continuum.
Hillocks, G. (2002). The testing trap : how state writing assessments control learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Harper.
McCarthy, C. (2006). Test-driven teaching isn’t character-driven, March 19, 2007, from http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0607-26.htm
Passman, R. (2001). Experience with student-centered teaching and learning in high-stakes assessment environments. Education, 122(1), 189-199.