Editorial: Of teaching and testing
School is almost here. Pretty soon, the familiar yellow buses will be making their way up and down county roads, picking up boys and girls ready and eager (some more than others) for the opportunity to learn.
Which begs the question: Just how much are they learning? For almost as long as there has been school, there have been attempts to gauge just how effective that instruction has been.
In the 19th century, students were tested to determine if they mastered a given subject, and those who didn’t pass were kept back. Only the brightest and hardest working advanced to high school. Teachers, meanwhile, were often required to pass an initial test of general knowledge and interviewed by the school board to ensure they didn’t have any unconventional views or religious beliefs. Once they were hired, that was that. If students failed to learn, it was their own fault.
The system remained pretty much unchanged until the Cold War, when concerns over Soviet dominance in math and science (e.g., the successful launch of Sputnik) resulted in a ramped-up involvement in education on the part of the federal government, something that had previously been the bailiwick of the local school district and the state.
Since that time, the accountability pendulum has swung back and forth, corresponding to different educational philosophies and priorities. One of the most recent, and unusual, pushes for accountability comes from the Los Angeles Times, which is planning to publish a database of some 6,000 elementary school teachers, grading them on their students’ scores.
While holding teachers responsible for student test performance makes sense on one level; on another, it is somewhat disturbing. Should a teacher be held accountable if her students aren’t good at taking exams, or if the children simply chose not to study? Likewise, should a teacher be rewarded if she merely teaches to the test and provides nothing of lasting educational value to her students?
Education does not exist in a vacuum. Decisions about accountability and student testing cannot be made without considering the financial implications. The Mathews County Board of Supervisors and School Board have both gone on record urging the Virginia Department of Education to reduce its unfunded mandates, asking them to align the state’s Standards of Learning tests with those of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
In this current climate of ever-tightening budgets, does it make sense to funnel more and more of our scarce resources into student performance tests? Is rote memorization to be prized above applied knowledge? And how can students learn if their days are filled with tests rather than lessons? But then again, how can we be sure students are learning without some objective standards in place?
It is a delicate balance that must be struck between teaching and testing, and between doing what is needed to assure that learning is taking place and what is practical, both fiscally and in terms of available classroom time.
In the meantime, best of luck to the youngsters heading back to class on Tuesday. May you receive the spark of learning that will blossom into a lifelong passion.