A tyranny of testing

Ellen Kirvin Dudis

November 05, 1992|By Ellen Kirvin Dudis

POCOMOKE CITY — OUR kids don't need more testing. They need more teachers.

To borrow from the rhetoric of the military, we need an army of brighter, better-educated, better-paid teachers.

The way to provide really effective, meaningful instruction is to reduce class size. The way to eliminate disruption and attitude problems is to reduce class size. By reducing class size -- to a maximum of 15, especially in middle school, we would discourage most discipline problems and allow teachers to establish genuine rapport with their students.

Anyone who has watched a teacher try to keep 30 eighth graders focused on the subject has seen time and talent wasted. Communication deteriorates into the exchange of threats and insults which make a travesty of the teacher-student relationship. Why should our best and brightest college graduates choose to teach in our public schools unless they have some expectation of authority and control?

This authority applies to the curriculum as well as the classroom. No intelligent young person wants a career devoid of personal initiative. Canned curricula and low salaries have turned the ablest from teaching; a generation of "education" majors now stands in front of our children with teacher's manual in hand and nothing more in mind than surviving the year's battery of standardized tests.

My opinions are those of a parent and sometime school volunteer who has seen my children and their classmates grow increasingly bored and restless in school. I have heard their best teachers voice frustration with "the system," the imposed formats and procedures and, above all, the endless state-mandated testing. If plans for national testing materialize, we can kiss the virtues and vitality of our community schools good-bye.

It's unrealistic to expect test scores of kids in Baltimore or of kids in rural hamlets to match those of kids in Montgomery County, but not because of native inequality. It simply stands to reason that the children of highly educated, employed, affluent, cosmopolitan parents come to school with the built-in motivation and advantages of their background.

School jurisdictions, therefore, should be allowed to design and implement a curriculum that best serves their constituencies, without fear of failing tests created in Annapolis. In the long run, local variations in material and approach should enhance

achievement.

Instead, the state holds our schools accountable to its set of performance criteria. Consequently, course content is curtailed as teachers spend class time teaching test-taking. Students here in Pocomoke are drilled for months in preparation for Maryland's "functional" tests, for tests of "basic skills" and for the state's latest brainchild, the "criterion referenced test."

As if it weren't absurd enough to teach kids how to take these tests, the teachers have to attend workshops that teach them how to teach the test-taking!

Consider the Maryland citizenship test. According to my son (a 10th grader at Pocomoke High School), most of the material on this test is covered in sixth-grade Maryland history. Then, in eighth grade, American history stops in its tracks for six weeks, and students are prepped for the actual test, which is given as a practice exercise. Though many eighth graders pass with 100 percent, they still are required to take ninth-grade civics, largely a review for the test they already passed but must take again in February.

At this point, those who pass are done with it. The rest may take the test again in June, in summer school, in 10th grade, in 11th grade and in 12th grade. What does this test really prove?

Answers to the citizenship test questions are either right or wrong. But how do you grade the writing test objectively? Unless a single individual grades every paper in the state of Maryland, we don't have "objective" scoring -- and even then the evaluations are open to contest. Given four years of high school English, graduates should be able to command the language with basic skill, if not genius. But no one is willing to trust that outcome to the local schools -- which brings me back to the need for better teachers in greater numbers.

Four years of high school English with teachers who got C's as education majors, whose own examples of critical writing are non-existent, who demand no more than multiple choice and fill in the blanks, amount to a waste of resources. Every public school teacher should have a record of distinguished scholastic achievement and a degree in a genuine discipline. To attract people of this caliber, we have to offer more money. But by making it tougher and more rewarding to become a public school teacher, we make it more attractive. Public education might then compete with the private sector, which traditionally has skimmed the cream off the top.

Obviously any effort to improve the quality of public education is going to cost us. And tripling the number of teachers and paying them more to boot would take some time. But it beats dumping any more tax dollars on think tanks in New Jersey, where so-called education experts hatch the next politically correct standardized test, once again setting off that chain of accountability which leaves our schools not so much accountable to our children as to our state.

Meanwhile, the kids are here, waiting. Their potential is at stake, which is to say, the nation's future. With or without an army, it's time to get off the testing treadmill and let the teachers teach.

Ellen Kirvin Dudis contributes frequently to Other Voices from Pocomoke City.

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