On Wednesday, September 18th at the Regent Theater in Arlington, MA, Monty Neill, the Executive Director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) will be facilitating a discussion following the screening of August to June. The movie calls into question the emphasis on test-based accountability and its influence on the way in which today’s curriculum is being narrowed, impacting children’s joy of learning, sense of belonging, creative expression and self confidence.
In a recent interview, Monty reflects upon standardized testing and its impact on student-centered education.
This film challenges us to consider what is most important as we seek to educate our children and prepare them for playing meaningful roles in our society. What current educational practices and/or priorities seem most likely to get in the way of having truly student-centered classrooms and schools?
Standardized testing and test-based accountability together are among the most significant obstacles. They force rote learning to boost test scores, pretty much the opposite of student-centered education, which begins by considering individual students’ interests, strengths and challenges. Beliefs in standardization, “efficiency,” centralization and the reduction of educational goals to economic imperatives foster test-based schooling. Large class sizes are also a clear obstacle that prevents both student-centered instruction and meeting the real needs of children. It is not that schools were student-centered before the mass use of high-stakes tests, but the tests are now the primary obstacle to winning needed changes. Certainly we will also have to address questions about the goals of education, the best ways to teach, how to ensure schools are educational communities for teachers as well as students, and more.
Given your experiences as the Executive Director of FairTest, can you explain how it is that standardized testing became such an integral part of the education system today?
There are a set of forces that have promoted testing, including the beliefs noted above. Big business and allied foundations, backed by major media and many politicians, are the primary actors pushing test-based schooling. Some civil rights groups, frustrated by unequal and inadequate schooling for the children they represent, concluded that the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law would provide public data that could be used to demand equity. Because the law rests on test-and-punish and because it failed to challenge real inequalities in schools and in society, it has failed to meet civil rights goals. Finally, some forces want to end public control of schools in favor of privately controlled schools, and they have seen testing as a way to discredit public education, opening the door to privatization as well as related goals such as smashing unions.
You are among many who are working to repeal the mandates around high-stakes statewide proficiency testing. What are you seeing that suggests educational stakeholders should challenge the widespread commitment to such testing?
NCLB, the primary force behind national test expansion, has failed on its own terms. The law says improvement will be measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. But since NCLB was implemented, test score gains have slowed dramatically, overall and for almost every demographic group in both subjects and all tested grades. We have seen an increase in time spent on tests, intensified teaching to the test, and narrowing of the curriculum to tested subjects. There is evidence that high-stakes testing undermines school culture, contributes to discipline issues, and thereby fuels what some call the “school to prison pipeline.” There also are reports that students are less prepared for college and careers because the testing regime has fostered rote instruction so students end up not knowing how to ask questions, investigate, challenge material, develop extended work (projects, writing, etc.), or in general think critically, whatever the subject matter. The damage is most pronounced in schools serving low-income students and students of color because they are under the most pressure to increase test scores.
What can we do about it?
There are many actions people can take. Educate yourselves. There is a national petition against high-stakes testing you can sign – and get your school board to endorse. Talk with policymakers. Write letters to the editor. Across the nation, students, parents and teachers have even boycotted the tests. August to June shows us what wonderful teaching can look like. There are established, valid, reliable ways to document student learning in such schools for purposes of public reporting. There are also excellent forms of assessment that benefit students and provide meaningful information about their progress.
For more information on all these topics, see http://www.fairtest.org.
Monty Neill, Ed.D., is currently Executive Director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest). He has led FairTest’s work on testing in the public schools since 1987. He currently chairs the Forum on Educational Accountability, an alliance working to overhaul federal education law (the No Child Left Behind Act, in particular) based on the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, signed by nearly 150 national groups. Among many publications, he is co-author of Failing Our Children, a report analyzing the federal No Child Left Behind Act and providing guidance toward new, helpful accountability systems.