This is a commentary I wrote that was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in March, 2005:
The March 6th front-page article “Teachers Feel Heat of Accountability” was both misleading and a missed opportunity to report on many of the true issues currently facing teachers and schools. The article is written as if it is a general report on the current state of teaching and learning in local public schools. Yet, similar to the inappropriately named “No Child Left Behind” act the article addresses issues of accountability by only addressing standardized testing and issues associated with test scores.
No one can argue against the need for accountability in our schools or for improvement in the arena of public education. Yet our country’s current obsession with testing does little to increase accountability or to improve the quality of education in our schools. As many parents, students, teachers and administrators across the country have pointed out, an overemphasis on the importance of test scores has resulted in a decrease in real learning in our schools. Instead of focusing on meaningful course content and skill building that prepares students for real life scenarios, both teachers and principals feel more pressure to teach solely to the tests and implement a “drill and grill” curriculum that has little value outside of the context of standardized tests. (See the FairTest website for one example: www.fairtest.org.)
Aren’t our schools meant to prepare our young people to be effective and productive members of society? How can this happen when more and more of the school year is spent learning how to jump through hoops (standardized tests) that test skills which rarely transfer to real world scenarios? There are many ways to hold both teachers and schools accountable while improving the quality of education at the classroom level. In addition to developing tests that ask students to do more than fill in bubbles or respond to sterile writing prompts with pre-packaged essays that have little meaning outside of the test, we should be moving towards more “authentic assessments” that truly challenge students on multiple levels. One example of an authentic assessment is student portfolios which are used by many private and reform-minded public schools around the country. Often evaluated by school staff and people from the larger community, portfolios force students to think independently, perform research, problem-solve, follow a schedule for completing a major project, demonstrate competency in a subject area, and respond to questions and critiques of their thinking. All of these are real-life skills that are not assessed by the standardized tests currently used in our schools. (Examples of portfolios and schools that use them successfully can be found at the Coalition of Essential Schools website: www.essentialschools.org)
Until the decision-makers in our educational system commit themselves to reform that results in meaningful change in our classrooms and not just meaningless statistics, our country will continue to deceive itself about educational reform and students will continue to be victims of a failing system.