Examining our exam mania: A review of “The Test” by Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz is a veteran reporter on the education beat and the mother of a daughter on the verge of entering preschool. In her new book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be, Kamenetz is driven by her need as a journalist to assemble evidence and anecdotes to make her case. But her work is equally inspired by her desire as a parent to protect her child’s “innate resilience, curiosity, and joy.” What she ends up with is a valuable read for anyone who wants to understand the role standardized tests have in the lives of the vast majority of American children today—a role that is becoming even stronger with the implementation of new Common Core tests in the majority of states this year. Texas is one of a handful of states that have not adopted Common Core testing.

Parents of public school students will find the final section of the book especially useful. Kamenetz provides a checklist of strategies to help families cope with mandated testing—from how to emotionally prepare kids for hours of test prep and the tests themselves to how to approach and implement a decision to opt out of testing entirely. The rest of the book includes a fascinating history of how early intelligence tests evolved into school achievement tests, how and why testing went off the rails in the past 20 years, and innovative suggestions for getting our schools back on track.

Texas was on the cutting edge of the modern high-stakes testing movement in the 1990s. The use of carrots and sticks to push states to adopt stricter, more frequent tests to measure achievement became national policy under No Child Left Behind in 2001. NCLB is still the law of the land, but Congress is now debating various ways to revise and improve the law’s approach. There is fairly broad agreement that the tests most states use in assessing students each year are ineffective and actually may be counterproductive in promoting quality teaching and learning. Unfortunately, Common Core and other attempts to reform the system in recent years ignore that consensus.

The intentions of the policymakers and educators who embarked on NCLB and the standardized testing experiment were noble for the most part, but were based on false premises, according to Kamenetz.  In the 1980s, reports of failing public schools and a “rising tide of mediocrity” were probably the result of inaccurate data, but the belief that the United States was falling behind other countries played on Cold War–era fears, so policymakers ignored or suppressed questions about the data. The 1980s and ’90s stock market and tech booms influenced the business-management and number-crunching mindset that now permeates education reform: collect and analyze data, provide incentives to improve performance, and demonstrate to shareholders (also known as taxpayers) that investments in public education are sound.

What’s more, all that data collection, test writing, and test prep provided a huge windfall—now in the billions of dollars—for a few big publishers and testing corporations. Now, of course, those corporations lobby for maintaining and expanding their business. Academic and charitable institutions—especially the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the 800-pound gorilla of education philanthropy)—also contribute mightily to the demand for more quantitative assessments of kids and teachers.

As demonstrated in last week’s protests in New York in which thousands of families opted out of spring testing, we are approaching a point when demands for change may reach a critical mass. Kamenetz outlines several possible solutions for schools that are testing the wrong things, wasting teachers’ and students’ precious time, and driving good teachers away from the profession.

The Test’s look at alternatives to NCLB, Common Core, and standardized testing in general will ring true for parents who are already involved in the alternative education movement. Kamenetz suggests that we need approaches—two of which she labels the “butterfly” and “unicorn” models—that encourage students to be creative and collaborative and to embrace their own unique learning styles and interests. As an ideal goal, she favors a “multiple-measures” system for public schools, akin to that promoted by Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, that can assess and help guide students to meet their potential as learners. She offers many examples of schools that are experimenting with new visions, including mindfulness and meditation, student assessments based on video games, and more humanistic ways of “doing school” that include peer review, portfolios, and self-reflection. Teachers should also be evaluated using multiple measures, she says.

Kamenetz argues that change “has to come from families who are not only fed up, but also can see the alternatives clearly.” Those alternatives look an awful lot like innovative schools operating right now in Austin and across the country:

Students work together and separately to build, make, read, write, conduct experiments, solve problems, and present their work. ‘How am I doing?’ is a question answered continuously, by self-reflection, teacher feedback, peer review, and public exhibition as well as by referring to external standards such as the Common Core.

There is still a place for national, standardized assessments, she thinks, but only administered sparingly.

Kamenetz makes a strong case for reform of student and teacher assessment, and reform looks achievable if a broad coalition of parents, teachers, and policymakers agree to pursue it, especially because there is now some bipartisan agreement in Washington that something must be done to reform the testing system. Unfortunately, what seems less likely is that a broad coalition will be able to agree on the “kind of world we are creating for our children,” which Kamenetz suggests is also essential to debates about school reform. “Child welfare, foster care, juvenile justice, and maternal health are all part of this conversation. So are minimum wage, the pay gap, and maternity leave.”

Kamenetz notes that a 2013 study demonstrated that in North Carolina 85 percent of school performance issues can be explained by the economic well-being of a child’s family, as measured by eligibility for subsidized lunches. Today, of the 50 million students in American public schools, almost half receive free and reduced-price lunches, and only 14 of 50 states attempt to give poor schools more aid than rich schools.

If you have questions about the standardized testing and anti-testing movements, it’s likely that you’ll hear the answer in the video below. It was taped at Politics & Prose, a bookstore and community center in Washington, D.C., where Kamenetz recently gave a fascinating talk about her book and how high-stakes testing is affecting learners everywhere.

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