Friday, August 14, 2009

Testing and the False Promise of Educational Improvement

As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg moves toward near certain reelection, an interesting article appeared in the New York Times last week, looking at his stewardship of the public school system: The numbers look impressive. This year, 82 percent of city students passed statewide tests in math and 69 percent in English, up from 42 and 38 percent, respectively, in 2002. Staten Island and Queens have seen dramatic rises in comparison to other New York counties, and even the lowly Bronx is improving. And the racial gap has declined when measured by the number of students passing.

Yet the numbers are deceiving when one delves deeper. For one thing, it appears that the increase in passing rates relates more to making the tests easier rather than any real improvement in student performance. For another, the actual racial gap in scores has not changed much. This was made clear when looking at the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that eighth graders showed little improvement in reading or math. So what’s the story? As with many neoliberal reforms, testing justifies a shift to a curriculum based on testing, narrowed away from a broader, more holistic approach. Yet the tests don’t really measure student performance or what they’re learning in a real sense. The push to hold schools accountable leads state leaders to simply cook the books and make sure they are showing improvement – even if it means little. The improvements then legitimates the very system the tests themselves are undermining.

So what is lost in the process? Art and music have fallen by the wayside. Culturally-relevant, engaging curriculum is sidelined (and in New York City, Bloomberg has instituted using the same textbooks and curriculum throughout the entire system). Progressive approaches to pedagogy are eliminated, as the lowest performing students are simply taught to take and pass the tests, by any means possible. Gone is civics education or broadening the mind. And in a period when obesity and Type II diabetes are on the rise, physical education is seriously curtailed. In the end, the neoliberal push for accountability ensures that all that is taught are basic skills and “core competencies,” leaving little room to address student’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual growth. Little time is left to bring joy and passion into the educational process. And even less is allotted to ensure that youth develop real critical thinking skills that can serve themselves and society in making the world a better place.

The push toward accountability and statistical success has essentially undermined the original goals of public schooling – to create an educated, informed public that can actively participate in society and democracy and to serve as the great equalizer that will make America a true meritocracy. In the process, NYC becomes a perfect exemplar of the old adage by Benjamin Disrael that there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

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