In late January, as part of his annual State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he is doubling down on standardized testing. In his quest for superior numbers, he proposed tying teachers’ fates even more tightly to high-stakes tests by hiking the portion of their evaluation that is based on students’ scores from 20 percent to 50 percent.
This is a disastrous proposal. Self-preservation is almost certain to force teachers, trained to educate the whole child, to teach, mainly, the test-taking child. And as evidence from studies, reports and teachers own observations piles up, the test-taking child is a much more brittle creature than her whole-child counterpart.
This is a far cry from what learning used to be like in New York. When my generation came into the teaching profession in the late 1960s, superintendents would typically give motivational speeches at the beginning of the school year to inspire our idealism. They quoted Plato and the classics to remind us about the uniqueness of each of our students and the importance of balance in our instruction—“a sound mind in a sound body.” This holistic approach to education also embraced the children’s physical and social well-being.
Such was the philosophy that had driven the liberal arts and sciences curriculum historically, and the training of generations of teachers.
My cohort from Queens College in 1968 was prepared to teach a K-6 curriculum by singing with our students and playing simple songs on the piano and recorder. An elementary school teacher in those days had to teach basic art lessons, direct plays, recite poetry, choreograph dances and produce programs for assemblies—as well as teach reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, science and civics.
Just before I retired in 2007, I attended my last beginning-of-the-year motivational meeting. It had become “motivation by the numbers.” The new regional superintendent came to tell us that our school was in danger of getting a failing grade from the New York City Department of Education. She proceeded with graphs and charts to show exactly how we could bump the last year’s reading test results to her projected scores for that year. A fourth grade teacher sitting next to me whispered, “She sounds more like an actuary than an educational leader.”
If you’ve had suspicions all along that today’s testing-first ethos was meant to benefit corporate America more than schoolchildren, read Anya Kamenetz’s fine new book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be. In it, Kamenetz describes the developmental, historical and mathematical fallacies that proponents have used to justify standardized testing, thus inflating the profits of a business that has “risen from troubling beginnings to become a $2 billion industry controlled by a handful of companies and backed by some of the world’s wealthiest men and women.”