Poor Teaching for Poor Kids
Review by Jonathan Pollard
"The movement toward high stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, accuracy, and educational equity. The misuse of tests for high stakes purposes has subverted the benefits these tests can bring. We cannot close the achievement gap until we close the gap in investment between poor and rich schools. Instead of taking responsibility as policy makers to invest in improving students' lives, we place the responsibility squarely on children. It is simply negligent to force children to pass a test and expect that the poorest children, who face every disadvantage, will be able to do as well as those who have every advantage." - Senator Paul Wellstone, in a speech delivered to a group of Minnesota educators on April 4, 2000
A lot of people who advocate the high stakes movement and the system's excessive use of standardized testing claim that they do so in the name of promoting educational equality. Instead of turning promises of 'bridging the gap' into realities, the high stakes movement has resulted in poor children falling even further behind their more economically fortunate counter-parts. Kohn argues that this statement is true for a number of reasons:
• Tests may be biased. Many standardized tests include questions that are more likely to be answered correctly by students who come from privileged backgrounds. It's crazy for anyone to suggest that such tests measure what children learn in the classroom, while neglecting to even consider the possibility that knowledge gained outside of school is equally relevant on these exams. Children who come from more affluent families, have educated parents, attend quality daycare or preschool programs, own computers, travel, or attend cultural events are far more likely than less affluent children to possess such outside knowledge.
• Test preparation. When the stakes rise, people will do anything to make sure that their kids succeed. Scholarships, college admission, and reputation are all on the line. If the students don't profit from high stakes testing, many companies certainly do. They have turned the desperation of parents and students into a money-making industry. Test prep courses, vocabulary boosting audio tapes, exam-specific tutors. Guess who can afford these luxuries? Affluent families, schools, and school districts. The poorer schools are too concerned with paying for basic educational supplies, like books and other necessities.
• Standardized tests are great at ensuring that poor kids become poor adults. Standardized tests don't really measure anything important. They tend to focus on short term memory and actual test-taking ability rather than genuine understanding. In short, they stunt children's academic potential by 'dumbing them down'. The more frequently poor children mindlessly fill in worksheets on command (in an effort to raise test scores), the more likely they are to fall behind affluent kids who actually understand ideas and concepts.
• Funding issues. Rather than spending money for better teachers, funding goes to test preparation materials. Plus, affluent schools that are already successful are likely to get financial bonuses for performing well on exams, while poor schools that truly need the money sometimes lose funding due to low test scores.
• Demanding tougher standards, through offering rewards or threatening punishments, isn't the remedy. Some very real factors that effect our schools - such as racism, poverty, inadequate resources, language barriers, and crime - are being dismissed as 'excuses'.
• The teachers that really want to help poor students learn will be pressured to leave the profession. This system of punishments and rewards which stresses 'teaching to the test' will drive some of the most intelligent and idealistic young teachers out of the profession. Many of the teachers who do remain will begin to look at low scoring children as detriments, rather than challenges. The quality of teaching at poor schools will go from second to third rate.