How can teaching and learning simultaneously occur with constant testing and assessment?

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by Kelly Meehan

Pauline Hawkins describes the current state of education perfectly in her resignation letter, “The emphasis on Common Core Standards and high-stakes testing is creating a teach-to-the-test mentality for our teachers and stress and anxiety for our students…That is what school has become: A place where teachers must give students “right answers”, so students can prove (on tests riddled with problems, by the way) that teachers have taught students what the standards have deemed to be a proper education.” Hawkins’ outrage and sadness is felt by many teachers and brings up the question: how can teaching and learning simultaneously occur with constant testing and assessment? The truthful answer is that lesson plans directly reflect the material being covered on these high stakes tests and the learning that takes place is actually just conditioning.

High stakes testing has inundated curriculum at every grade level. The trickle down is felt as early as preschool with more early childhood educators favoring worksheets and written assessments over learning through play. Pressure to prepare these students for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), is felt by Preschool and Kindergarten teachers even though the MCAS isn’t administered until the third grade. Kindergarten students endure standardized literacy exams to test their phonological awareness. They are forced to take math standardized tests riddled with ridiculous word problems that need to be read to them because the students are unable to read the questions themselves. So 20-25 five year old students are forced to sit silently, minute after minute, filling in tiny bubbles while the instructor reads each question. Keep in mind these same students started the school year not even knowing how to write their name and are now expected to master how to complete a standardized test? Ludicrous. However, the pressure is so palpable that teachers carry on with these absurd exams because teachers are fearful their students will fail and thus they as teachers are failing.  And so, the teachers keep teaching to the test, focusing less and less on the act of learning and more and more on the process of regurgitating information; and can anyone really blame them?  Of course they teach to the test, the test is how they are evaluated as teachers, it directly affects their employment status and their compensation.  Education has become, as Norman Douglas called it, “a state-controlled manufactory of echoes.”

So the question that should be asked is the following: what is the quality of the teaching and learning happening inside our classrooms? Is it the type of teaching and learning that is exploratory, engaging, and thought provoking? A type of learning that rewards risk and “wrong” answers? Under Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind, and Race To The Top, the learning and teaching taking place is through rote lessons, teacher guided instruction, and results in anxious students with poor self-esteem. Classrooms are filled with students who are worried, bored, and unaware of how to think and question because these skills are no longer being fostered in education.

Kelly Meehan is a first year graduate student at Boston College in the Curriculum and Instruction program. She is currently a Kindergarten Anchor Teacher in Massachusetts.

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