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Guest opinion: Should we scrap standardized testing? This former teacher thinks so

School closures curbed standardized tests for Utah schools this spring. But the temporary pause could lead a transition to more effective ways to gauge student progress.

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Don Mroczkowski - stock.adobe.com

It is possible that when the coronavirus has run its course and the schools are back to normal next year, the powers-that-be in our federal and state offices of education ask themselves, “In our one year without the test, did we really miss it?” I maintain that it will not be missed and should be scrapped for good.  

Before our education leaders begin to hyperventilate, we should all step back and think about it, as well. About 20 years ago, “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) was first implemented.  It carried a noble moniker, yet developed into an ignoble concept. School systems across our nation were threatened into compliance with a set of standards that were met with resistance, until systems were coerced into adopting. 

This pernicious, unfunded mandate sent state education officials scurrying around to find solutions and legislatures to provide funding — but for what? The test did little but satisfy someone’s lust for data collection for data’s sake. When has a child really benefited from this exploitation? 

Besides putting school district leaders and individual school administrators at odds with state officials and each other, camaraderie among many school faculties suffered greatly.  Some principals became paranoid data-gatherers, living from one Adequate Yearly Progress report to another. It was difficult for some common-sense educational leaders to quell the hysteria for fear of not passing AYP. Sure, there were threats of federal sanctions for some schools, but they carried little weight when compared with giving our students the education they deserve. Other business models came into play, where students, teachers and principals were displaying data on “data walls” in the classrooms, school halls and office windows. This woefully shamed students that were struggling.

Schools need to be accountable, but data-driven correction should be replaced with teachers sitting down with parents as a team to help a student succeed. The problem is trust. The individual teacher’s training and experience can be better spent partnering with parents and students instead of being responsible to provide “drill-and-kill” test review. Who would want to be a teacher in that climate? Is it possible that the milieu of test preparation and testing is a good part of why educators leave the profession in the first five years of teaching? Sure, salary is a big deal, but job satisfaction is probably bigger. 

I spent 35 years as a teacher. During the years I felt that I was part of a cohesive team, all working for the same thing, (whole-student success), it was a pleasure to come to school and the job was satisfying, even if salary negotiations were sometimes disappointing. All subjects were on equal footing because we were teaching the “whole child.” Now, only four subjects are emphasized. Accreditation looked at every aspect and department of the school, and not just a narrow set of objectives characterized by test preparation and performance — which, to me, appeared to be an educational “Potemkin Village.”

Surely, I’m not naïve enough to think that this will make the federal mandate go away. But can’t a task force be formed with the money that would be spent on this year’s test to come up with a way to have a school accountability package, satisfying the feds as well as the parents, teachers and the students without testing? Call it the “Utah Model.” Believe it or not, the students should be at the center of all of this, not their test scores.  

If our education leaders thought long and hard, they would discover that children’s needs have been left out of the equation most of the time. 

Richard M. Heath spent 35 years teaching instrumental music at a local Utah junior high school.