Standardized tests limit education

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Recently we received a letter to the editor criticizing one local school district in reference to new students entering the district during the week of MAP testing. We chose not to run the letter, because we believed its criticism was misguided and directed at the wrong people.

MAP testing does take up a lot of instructional time at our area school districts. The pressure to do well on MAP is understandable, because MAP scores have become a grade card for district achievement. The schools in Barry County are not alone in their seeming obsession with MAP scores. This is a statewide pressure shared by all public schools, and we wish the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would get rid of the test and let teachers and administrators get back to the real business of educating our students.

I do believe there needs to be accountability, but by placing so much emphasis on one test, we miss the point. All too often teachers are forced to set aside their creative teaching methods and "teach to the test." I'll never forget when my youngest son was in elementary school and he missed participating in the Young Authors contest that year because the teacher was overwhelmed with making sure her students learned their MAP skills. I did not blame his teacher, because she was under pressure to prove that her students were learning, and sadly, MAP scores are the measuring stick by which districts and teachers are compared.

This system seems innately unfair to me. For one, teachers don't choose every member of their class and I know sometimes one class can be more challenging than another and that varies from year to year. I also believe a standardized test is not the only way to gauge a child's intelligence or their educational potential. As the mother of one child who tests well and another who doesn't, I find myself frustrated. Both my children are equally intelligent in different ways, but under the current system, my one child is made to feel less smart because he is a poor test taker and falls short when it comes to his MAP scores. I believe in incentives and I believe all children should be encouraged to do their very best, but we need to find another way to assess educational success beyond a single test.

I recently read a very insightful opinion piece written by Lauren Bishop, a student at Hillcrest High School in Springfield, which appeared on the Springfield News-Leader's "Voices" page on May 4. In her editorial, entitled "MAP question: Why?", she comes to the conclusion that her years of MAP testing actually interfered with her education. She quotes FairTest, a national center for Fair and Open Testing, which describes the downside of standardized tests. "They reward the ability to quickly answer superficial questions that do not require real thought. They do not measure the ability to think or care in any field. Their use encourages narrow curriculum and outdated methods of instruction . . ."

I couldn't agree more with FairTest's assessment of standardized tests like the MAP. Teachers' creativity is often crippled by these tests and students are often sapped of their love for learning as they are forced to memorize information that will be on the test. The overwhelming pressure of testing also sometimes causes students to totally shut down and the results are a far from accurate reflection of these students' intelligence.

By no means are we criticizing local teachers or school districts. As we've said in the past, educators are our heroes. They are merely doing the very best job they can within the existing system, and while the MAP test is in place, emphasis must be placed upon it.

Instead, we are criticizing the national and statewide obsession with measuring educational outcomes with methods of standardized testing. We are advocating the creation of a new system of assessment and accountability that better serves teachers and students alike. Obviously, tests are a big part of school, but learning is much broader than filling in ovals on a lengthy multiple choice test. Education is about inspiring young people to be life-long learners and helping them discover an avocation along the way.