opinion   |   column

COLUMN: No more teaching to the test

As of Friday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has approved Indiana’s plan for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was originally signed into law by former President Obama in December 2015.

In a rare moment of agreement with Secretary DeVos, I support her statement that states should “use their plans as a starting point, rather than a finish line, to improve outcomes for all students.”

After becoming largely the subject of the federal government’s discretion, ESSA is a sign that education policy is moving back where it should be: in the hands of the states. 

As a guiding principle, education in the United States should be framed by core values of excellence and growth that each community strives to uphold in the manner that best suits the students it serves. 

To proceed in this manner, it is important to distinguish between standardization and homogenization. 

For example, every student should receive proper training for life after high school graduation, and some amount of standardization is certainly necessary in order to measure the efficacy of that training. We cannot, however, insist that every student’s path looks exactly the same.

Under the newly approved ESSA plan, educators will be allowed to evaluate the college and career readiness of high school students using several different forms that more accurately assess students’ progress, including their performance in advanced placement and dual credit courses.

This shift in legislation involves many other changes from the previous No Child Left Behind Act that had controlled policy since 2002. Among these are closing math and English skills gaps for special education students and students of color, changing the scale on which schools are graded and providing more flexibility in standardized testing. 

Standardized tests in particular are the hallmark of NCLB and have been criticized widely for their influence on American education.

Despite the seeming benefit of identifying disparities across communities and ensuring that schools are upholding academic standards, the reality of the tests’ effects on the everyday experience of education was less than desirable.

In a national survey of public education teachers conducted by the Center on Education Policy, 81 percent felt their students spent too much time taking state or district-mandated tests and 62 percent felt too much time was spent in preparation for the tests.

And, as a report from the National Council of Teachers of English explains, more time interpreting student test data means that teachers have less time to prepare their lesson plans, which then become more rigid to ensure they address test material.

Having been subjected to such tests as End of Course Assessments and the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress, I vividly remember my irritation at the time these tests consumed and the rigidity they imposed on the way lessons were taught.

If ESSA is executed properly, coursework designed to address the gaps NCLB identified and provide teachers with the opportunity to prioritize students’ needs rather than their test scores will help to reverse the unintended consequences of standardized testing.

Education should balance the necessary guidance of standardized goals with the equally necessary influence of individual students’ needs, and Hoosiers are now in a better position to achieve that balance.

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