Sunday, October 11, 2009

Miles Franklin Validates My Feelings About School Standardized Tests

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is pushing for Australian schools to take the standardized testing route. It's sounds very much like America's brilliant No Child Left Behind Act, which was started by everyone's favorite president, George W. Bush.

As I mentioned in a recent post, relying heavily on standardized tests has significant drawbacks. First of all, schools cheat on the tests in order to get higher scores. They lose their sense of ethics.

Teachers start to care more about raising test scores than they do about authentic learning.

Mrs. Sawyer, why does Saturn have rings?

I don't know. And since it's not going to be on any standardized tests, I don't care. We don't have time to discuss it Everyone turn to page 15 in the test booklet.

The other problem is it's unfair. Not every school has the same population of students. Children come into the classroom with different levels of intelligence and different home lives. I think these things both can make a huge difference on testing scores.

In My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin has a great monologue by a teacher. He's criticized by an inspector who has come to see his classroom. He replies:

Sir, I can and will account for it. Look you at every one of those children. Every one, right down to this little tot has to milk and work hard before and after school, besides walk on an average two miles to and from school in this internal heat. Most of the elder boys and girls milk on an average fourteen cows morning and evening. You try that treatment for a week or two, my fine gentleman, and then see if your fist doesn't ache and shake so that you can't write at all. See if you won't look a trifle dozy. Stupidity of country people be hanged! If you had to work from morning till night in the heat and dust, and get precious little for it too, I bet you wouldn't have much time to scrape your finger-nails, read science notes, and look smart.

I love that.

If we're going to test children, we can't simply compare test scores. We need to compare their lives as well.

Let's say Dave lives in an upper class home. He has internet access where he can practice his skills on various websites. He has bookshelves full of books. His mother or nanny has time to help him with his homework. The family can afford private tutors if needed. Now if Dave is low in intelligence, or has a learning disability, despite his parent's wealth, he may still find the test challenging. But I think it's likely with enough help, he can get reasonable test scores.

Ricky lives in poverty. Both his parents work. This is not an easygoing nine to five job. They're both home late in the evening. Ricky has to take care of his younger siblings, so he doesn't have much time to study or do homework. The family has no internet access. If Ricky wants to go online, he has to go to the library. But he can't go to the library often because he's usually babysitting. The family can't afford enough nutritious food. So when Ricky DOES have time to study, he's feeling too uncomfortable and irritable to put good effort into it.

Now sometimes a child like Ricky might be unusually brilliant. Despite his rough life, he can get straight A's and do great on the standardized tests. Then we can point Ricky out to children who have similar rough lives and say, Look! If he can do it, so can you! Yeah okay, but most kids can't get by on their amazing brains alone. They need good nutrition, quality time with parents, and material resources.

And it's not just a wealth/poverty issue. Even children in financially stable homes can have severe challenges. Some kids deal with chronic illness (either themselves or a family member). There's divorce, death, abuse, depression, natural disasters, etc.

I think it's important that the parents, teachers, and community look at the WHOLE child and not judge them solely on a standardized test score.


  1. {{D}}
    You are so cute!
    I used to help out High School ESL kids - so I know all about (well a little bit about) the NCLB Act. I love how you describe that. :D
    I think my husband and I pretty much see it as "nobody gets ahead of the slowest child in the group" act. [And maybe I just misunderstand it... ]
    nothing against the "slowest" child - and as you have said there are reasons and one really can't compare children against each other. Different gifts, different circumstances, different backgrounds (different lots of things).

  2. I completely agree with what you've said here, except for one sentence: "Teachers start to care more about raising test scores than they do about authentic learning."

    I don't think that's what the teachers care about. It's that they have no choice. I know a fair few school teachers and they hate the standardized testing, and hate that they have to spend all their time on it.

  3. Happy Organist: You're cute too ; )

    I think it would be so hard to teach to the slowest child. I think classroom teaching is hard in general. There's always going to be some kids who are way ahead...and bored. Then there will be other kids who are lost...and bored.

    Amy Sisson: Hi!! Yeah, I absolutely agree with you. I don't think teachers WANT to care about the test. I don't think they really have a choice. It's sad.

  4. We DO have a choice. And good teachers choose not to care about standardized test scores at all. We hate standardized tests, and we think they are the worst idea anybody ever came up with. NCLB is a joke.

    Don't get me started.

  5. Jeff,

    I'm glad to hear that! I would like to hear a teacher's perspective. So do you feel you DO have a choice. How much pressure does the school put on you. And if you have pressure, does it come more from the principal, or people outside the school (such as superintendent? Do you feel pressure from parents? Do they worry about the test scores at the school?

  6. There is pressure from the administration to "teach to the test", as they call it, but in the end, the admins aren't aren't sitting in my classroom, so I can teach what I feel is important.

    If my students do poorly on the standardized test, it reflects on me, but you know what? I couldn't care less. My job is to teach. If they want to fire me for doing my job then so be it.

  7. Just to clarify what I said above...don't get me wrong, I'm not some cavalier renegade who teaches whatever I want - we have a curriculum, and I follow it for the most part - I just refuse to let the standardized tests dictate what I teach and what I don't. And I continue to teach some topics which were recently removed from the curriculum specifically for the purpose of making time to "teach to the test," because I think those topics are more important than the test scores. And if the students express an interest in something, I will spend a class period or two discussing that topic with them, whether or not it's part of the curriculum. Because teaching is about exploring and learning, not test taking.

    The admins want me to "teach to the test," but I won't. I teach to the students. They will get out of my class what I put into it, and a national standardized test can't possibly anticipate what they'll need to know. If we spent all our time memorizing formulas, my kids could kick ass on those tests, but I think it's more important for them to spend their time learning when and how to apply the formulas. So that's what I teach. I think most of the parents are behind me on that.

  8. Jeff,

    It takes a strong person to do that. I think a lot of people use the excuse...Well, this is just the way things are. Or I can't let myself get fired. The latter has some validity. But if many people stood up together....well, there's power in numbers. Sometimes.

    I'm sure there are some other teachers like you. And that's why our education system hasn't completely failed.

    I think if the test rewards classrooms that teach to the test...well, then it's not a very good test. I think a good test would reflect positively on classrooms that have teachers like you.

  9. I so agree with this.

    I had a great experience with my teachers in school and had a lot of respect for them, even if I was a disrespectful teenager at the time. I had a science teacher that was trying to appeal the current standard test of the time, he'd fume over it in class and would tell us to see beyond it.

    Standardised testing in Australia I think refers more to that fact that in some states/areas the education is a lot poorer than others. Bringing in a standardised test is such a governmental solution to something that really needs to be dealt in a case by case thing. I think schools should have more power over their district and system so that they can deal with the issues that relate to the area.

    I've had a lot of friends attempt teaching degrees and drop out looking for other jobs because of the lack of freedom in teaching. They felt like they didn't want to be held responsible for shrinking the brains of Australians.

  10. Amy Michelle,

    I think standardized testing is the same in America. I think the INTENTIONS are good. Politicians want to provide an equal education for everyone.

    But I don't know if equal works. Equal in quality...yes. But each child and community is different. I think they should aim for different-but-equal.

    I don't blame your friends for dropping out.

    Australia and America might as well just get some robots to teach the kids.