The Rev. Ed Schneider: Mandated testing in public schools is failing US

The Rev. Ed Schneider

Tell me why a 9-year-old won’t eat for two days before her school district’s yearly standardized testing? Share with me the benefit of filling any classroom, at any age –– especially younger children –– with so much stress and dread that it quite literally prevents an accurate picture of what they have been taught or were able to retain.

Tell me why it is necessary to produce an environment so wrought with the fear of failure that teachers find themselves more focused on passing a test rather than deepening the atmosphere of gaining knowledge.

If the goal of yearly government mandated testing is to gain a clear academic snapshot of how our publicly educated children are doing, then it might be a good idea to place the children in the best environment to produce the most accurate evaluator of their progress.

Methods being employed by school districts all over the United States are counterproductive and need to change to better meet the goals of proper evaluation. How do I know this is abundantly true? Because the current system and philosophy that supports it is far too often doing just the opposite.

The best kind of learning happens in an environment that is supportive, positive, enjoyable and validating. In contrast, the worst attempt at teaching occurs when stress is high, enforcement of standards becomes the overriding issue and the environment produces an emotional resistance on the part of the student. Truthfully, if teacher and the student aren’t at least enjoying some of the process of learning and discovery, then the opportunity to retain knowledge and the subsequent testing to verify that understanding becomes highly unlikely.

Is it true people sometimes fail because of a lack of knowledge or effort? Yes. However, over the last few decades –– since federal testing has been mandated –– the desired results have not happened. The quality of retained knowledge is not advancing. Something is profoundly wrong with the system of learning and testing that is being employed for our publicly educated children. There is no doubt about that. Like all circumstances that have failed, it is essential to look at the systems surrounding the environment. By doing so, one can arrive with a better understanding of the possible reasons why the desired results are being hindered.  

Should we hold teachers accountable for their own inadequacies? Yes, but a qualified “yes.” It is remarkably improper, much less ethical, to hold a teacher “accountable” if the tools necessary to accomplish the desired result have not been supplied. It is just plain stupid to judge a teacher’s overall effectiveness while leaving the child’s home environment out of the analysis. Questions revolving around emotional or physical health can, and do, greatly affect an individual’s ability to learn and retain information. There are a lot of other factors that contribute to an accurate picture of a student’s ability to learn and the teacher’s ability to teach.

Mrs. Smith’s fourth-period math class tested well, while her sixth-period class tested poorly. Same curriculum and material being used: same teacher, same classroom and same day. But completely different results. Why are the results always different? Because each class and student is different. One class eagerly wants to learn and the other is full of non-interested knuckleheads. The uncomfortable truth is the type of testing being used simply ignores these and other examples and it is unfair to the student and to the teacher.

Depending on each school system’s agreed upon accountability standards, federally mandated testing may equal 12 to 17 percent of a student’s grade. If it only represents a small minority of the grading evaluation, then why are teachers dedicating upwards of 40 percent of their time “teaching the test?” Teachers have been emphasizing memorization rather than understanding as the baseline of preparing for mandated testing. That practical reaction to this particular type of testing couldn’t possibly be worse for the process of learning.

Let the state or federal government have their testing as an “educational snapshot” of how the system is fairing. I do think reasonably structured evaluations are a good thing and can be, if employed in a productive environment, profitable in determining where some strengths and weaknesses may be found. However, I see zero value in counting the yearly testing for any portion of the student’s grade. One way to improve the current system would be to exclude the few days of testing from the overall grading process entirely. That would relieve a great deal of the stress for both the student and the teacher.

Another suggestion may be to intentionally include in the curriculum how to take a test and how to prepare your emotions to handle the stress of the process. If any school board -- local, state, or federal -- wants to mandate a huge multi-day test to juniors, great! At 17, it is an appropriate time to learn what it means to be under pressure and how to positively react to it. However, to have younger children so encumbered by the kind of stress they are current experiencing is undeniably wrong. It needs to be addressed with urgency and it has got to change for the better. Peace.

The Rev. Ed Schneider is pastor of The Rock church in Oak Ridge, Tenn.,