Blaming Teachers, Punishing Students:

The Standards and High Stakes Testing Revolution

Perry M. Marker, Rouge Forum

81st Annual NCSS Annual Conference

November 16-18, 2001

Washington, D.C. 

We blame teachers for the “failure” of the schools. We blame them on a lot of levels. We blame their professional education; we blame what they teach; we blame how they teach. The simplistic, and punitive reform efforts regarding high stakes testing reflect the fact that teachers have been blamed for all that is wrong with education, and students are being punished for it.

During the past twenty years in California, we have dismantled the best educational system in the world and blamed it on the teachers. It’s the teachers’ fault that we have an average class size of over 32, and in many cases over 40 students, in classrooms designed for 25.It’s the teachers’ fault that we have educational facilities that are in a dangerous state of disrepair and outdated textbooks. It’s the teachers’ fault that we have chosen to spend less on education, and more on prisons. And, it’s the teachers’ fault that we have a population that is among the most diverse, and the most challenging to teach, anywhere on the planet.

Lost in this seemingly endless cycle of blame is the fact that despite what politicians and the popular press would like us to believe, according to Bruce Biddle and David Berlinger in The Manufactured Crisis (1998), during the last decade standardized scores have been holding relatively steady;with modest increases in both math and reading scores.The most recent reading report on the National Assessment of Education Progress for tests administered in 1992, 1994, and 1998, reflect the steady state of reading scores. Scores from 1998 are equal to, or slightly above, 1992 scores for all tested grades. This despite the fact that more students are taking the tests than ever before whose first language is not English. Biddle and Berlinger conclude that there is no support for the myth that American students fail in reading achievement, or any other subject.Simply put, schools are in better shape than we are led to believe. Teachers have done incredible work despite that fact that the educational system in California has been crumbling around them.

Since teachers are to blame for most of what is “wrong” with education, we now have punished students through the introduction of standards and high stakes testing: a racist, one-size-fits-all approach that is designed to present a singular and simplistic view of knowledge, truth and learning which ignores the diverse needs of our children of color and those who live in poverty.These “reform” efforts in education are intended to blame teachers and punish students for the problems of education by mandating a focus on drill and practice, and “teaching to the test,” instead of fostering students’ critical thinking skills. With efforts to blame teachers and punish students, we are relinquishing control of the classroom and curriculum solely to those who construct the tests. 

Perhaps the most astounding thing about standards and high stakes tests is the there is no research evidence whatsoever that their use enhances student achievement and learning.Still, tests have become so all consuming that more than 20 million schools days were devoted to them last year. The case for high stakes testing and standards is based on simplistic solutions designed to raise the self esteem of politicians and policy makers, and maintain a classist system of education where a small and select number of schools receive an embarrassment of riches.

Our fixation on high stakes testing was demonstrated when, the day after the tragic killings in Littleton, Colorado, high schools continued their scheduled standardized tests, rather than postpone them and discuss the incomprehensible events that shocked students and adults alike. I wonder how high the scores will be on that day of testing? Will teachers be blamed, yet again?

Things are bound to only get worse with high stakes testing.Schools will be compared to one another regarding how well they do on the tests. Teachers may be subjected to disciplinary pressures, even firing, if their students don’t score well on one test. Schools will lose funding or may even be closed. More importantly, students of color and children in poverty will get an education that doesn’t even begin to compare to that received with wealthier, white students.And, this doesn’t even consider the little mentioned fact that these tests cost big money. The National Commission on Testing and Public Policy says that standardized testing in America consumed more than $900 million in one year.

The current wave of high stakes, standardized tests are punitive and neglect the notion that assessment should serve the primary purpose of improving student learning.We need be working with teachers to expand the idea of assessment; to provide different, yet rigorous, ways for students to demonstrate what they know. We can develop demanding and yet inclusive proficiency exit standards that combine student portfolios, and performance based projects - not just one high stakes standardized test - to graduate.

Assessments should serve to determine the success of a program, provide information to parents on their child’s achievement, and hold schools accountable for how well taxpayers’ money is being spent.It’s time to demand that our school boards stop relying on a single, standardized, measure of student achievement and adopt a variety of student assessments that:

·are designed to provide feedback that improves student learning;

·involve parents, teachers and the community collaborating for improved student learning and better schools; 

·allow a variety of measures that focus on individual student learning;

·do not limit the curriculum to a singular, standardized, assessment based on a high stakes approach. 

Let’s stop blaming teachers and punishing students for the educational politics of neglect during the last two decades in California. If the last twenty years are any indicator, politicians don’t have the solutions to the education reform. Letís demand that those who are most invested in education- families and teachers - have a voice in determining the course of educational reform. Isn’t the education of our children is far too important to reduce it to a high stakes game of testing roulette?

Perry M. Marker, Professor and Chair

Department of Curriculum Studies and Secondary Education
1801 East Cotati Blvd.
School of Education
Sonoma State University
Rohnert Park, CA 94928

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