Maureen Connolly often visits K-12 schools to see how teachers work with their students on areas ranging from math to test preparation. A former high school English teacher and current education professor at The College of New Jersey, she is very familiar with the demands of testing and how educators feel a need to prepare students. That’s why she would like to see a return to using assessments as a guide, rather than a measurement weighted as heavily as they are today.
"Sometimes I’ll say when presenting don’t let the dog walk you," says Connolly, who co-authored "Achieving Next Generation Literacy: Using the Tests (You Think) You Hate to Help The Students You Love" with with Vicky Giouroukakis. "But that’s what seems to be happening. Instead, I say let’s actually use the test to help you."
Few would argue against the idea that schools in the U.S. are focused heavily on testing, as well as the numbers that come out of these assessments. For students, scores can be used on everything from deciding whether to promote them to the next grade to eligibility for gifted classes. On the teacher side, scores may determine bonuses and even tenure. Districts push the scores up to the state level to prove they're educating children (and doing their job), and states often tie scores to funding requests.
Sometimes, all of that rests in the hands of elementary school children clutching No. 2 pencils.
“We do know that schools tend to get molded by the pressures on them, and I am talking about people who are well-intentioned,” says Henry Levin, the William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education at Columbia University, about the pressures of testing and how assessments are used. “It gives people who work in these schools a sense of what is important and what they’ll be evaluated on, and also an impression on what kids will be evaluated on during their lifetimes.”
A heavy emphasis in K-12 schools is placed on math and English Language Arts (ELA). These two subjects are the core of the high-stakes tests that are repeated multiple times through a child’s educational career. Because of how the numbers can be used, schools put a lot of resources into making sure those test scores look good. Students can spend between 20 and 50 hours a year taking tests — and another 60 to 110 hours a year in test prep, according to a 2013 report from the American Federation of Teachers.
Test preparation is time taken away from regular instruction and can include showing students how to fill a bubble on an answer sheet or strategies on whether to guess an answer or leave it blank. None of that, likewise, involves a discussion of Ancient Rome’s political landscape and how that may or may not mirror what’s happening in the U.S. today.
In other words: It’s usually not about getting an education.
“Now teachers are gearing instruction to teaching to the test,” says Giouroukakis, a professor of education at Molloy College in New York and a former high school English teacher. “They’re moving away from more creative instructional practices, which is a shame.”
All of this testing pushes out options for richer curriculum and broader course selection, adds Joan Herman, co-director emerita of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA. She sees what other educational experts echo as well: The emphasis on test scores means schools focus heavily on preparing students for ELA and math tests while other subjects fall by the wayside.
“Kids who are struggling can get double doses of those courses,” she says. “That pushes out the opportunity for other [class] options.”
One option to include other subjects is for schools to weave them together, blending social studies or world history, for example, into English classes. Herman refers to this approach as making classes into “allies,” which she notes math and science have done for years.
But courses like art, physical education (P.E.) or even geography — all of which may not ally as naturally with assessments — may be ignored. And these subjects are important for students, according to studies.
"Although they are the basic building blocks of almost any solid elementary-school curriculum, English, math, science and history do not encompass the full range of experiences and knowledge that students will gain in elementary school," writes Martin West, an assistant professor of education, political science and public policy at Brown University in his 2007 paper, "Beyond the Basics."
"The arts, music, physical education, and even recess are all crucial for the development of healthy, culturally literate citizens."
To David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and the former commissioner of education for New York State, these courses are being ignored because they’re seen as less important than English and math.
"We have a class system of subjects where the first class is ELA and math and the second class is science, because we’re required to test in science three times in school," Steiner says. "Lower-second-class is social studies, and a whole group of subjects are third class, from arts, P.E., civics, geography, if it’s still even taught, and everything else, which is very odd."
A different view
Levin says intangibles — areas that don’t show up on multiple choice assessments and in standardized exams — can be particularly important. He points to the skills built through social-emotional learning (SEL) as being just as key to students' success as math abilities.
“Research is showing the development in student personalities in terms of social-emotional development is lagging,” he says. “The present understanding is social-emotional learning — the ability to think, to work with other people, to understand problems, what’s not reflected on tests — account for as much as test scores.”
But when up to 160 hours a year are spent on test preparation, carving more time for other courses is difficult. Giving students and teachers the space to explore learning beyond how to bubble a test sheet is what most educators want to offer their students, even if they feel they can’t.
“The bottom line is that it is inevitable that if you place more emphasis on one subject, there’s just so many hours in a school day,” says Steiner. “Something has to give.”