What do you think is the most challenging issue in education today?
Let's be clear about one thing, there are many challenging issues in education that I could choose to talk about on any given day. I'm not sure that any one thing qualifies as the most challenging since everything in education overlaps and works (or doesn't work) together. Instead of picking this as the biggest problem, I'm focusing on one issue that frustrates me.
Standardized testing. I hate it. And the more years I teach, the more it disturbs me. I'm not completely anti-standards (although I find the Core lacking in many ways). I think it's a good thing to generally have a consensus on what we want students to be able to accomplish during their educational years, but I have a big problem with more testing as being the answer on how to measure that.
I attended the IAMLE (Iowa Association of Middle Level Educators) conference with my school during my first year of teaching. The keynote speaker was enthusiastic and motivating, wowing the masses with stories of how his simple strategies for helping with test-taking were able to turn failing schools into successful ones. He stressed the need for kids to practice testing in order to prepare them for the standardized tests they'd be encountering later in the year. It all made so much sense under the spell of his smooth voice: how can kids test well if they aren't used to testing on a regular basis? More testing equals better test takers! And that's when I started to feel sick. I was only a first year teacher, not confident enough to speak up or go against what so many other people seemed to agree with, but it seemed fundamentally wrong. I mean, I got into this gig to share my passion for reading and writing with others, and to help them develop those skills for themselves. Nowhere in that vision did I set out to create successful test-takers.
The problems with increased testing are endless. Doesn't more testing mean less time for new learning? In the past few years, my school has also noticed a dramatic spike in the amount of kids who have severe anxiety. While a lot of factors contribute to that, and I've never conducted formal research to connect the two, you can't tell me that at least some of that anxiety isn't connected to frequent timed, high-stakes tests. Who decided that tests are even the best way to evaluate student ability? Hmmmm...testing companies, maybe? What happened to enjoying books and reading for pleasure, without having to take endless AR quizzes over them for comprehension? What about reading books you're interested in, instead of being forced to read something just because you tested in a certain lexile?
And what about the real world, the people who hire the students we are sending out into the world? Do they tell us, "What we're really looking for are future workers who score well on multiple choice tests!" No. They tell us they need workers who can think outside the box and create new products and ideas. Personally, I was an exceptional test-taker in school and always scored well (and actually kind of enjoyed them). And you know what? Beyond high school, nobody knows or gives a rip that I scored in the 99% percentile. Those scores had no bearing on my life or my future success.
Here's something that matters more than tests:
A seventh grade girl brought this "book worm" hand-knitted bookmark to my room this morning. She's selling them to raise money because she can't afford a costume for the performance she wants to do at the end of the year lip-sync show (more on that some other time). So she came up with the idea to make and sell these book worms for $2.50 to raise money for the costume she wants. I had to buy one. I won't use it as a bookmark (I prefer to dog-ear pages and leave my books in sporadic "tent" formations), but I had to support a student who would take the initiative and start working toward a goal that is eight months away (especially when eight months = eternity in kid time). Don't you think this is the kind of thinking we need more of? Someone who confronts a problem with a clever solution and puts it into action? I have no idea what her test scores look like, but I know from this that she'll be a productive, thoughtful member of society someday. Maybe if we spent less time on testing she'd be exposed to more thoughts and ideas to ignite more creative inspiration.
My 7th graders were in peer response groups for the first time this year today. It's always rough the first few times, trying to get them to be productive and on-task and helpful to each other. It's worth it eventually because language is transactional. Readers need writers to provide material, authors need an audience, speakers need listeners; language is not something that can be done in isolation. Standardized testing forgets that, which is why it doesn't work for language. Filling out bubbles about language doesn't equate to the ability to actually apply that knowledge. The only thing that will correctly represent students' true abilities, is the act of engaging in learning and authentic evidence of that learning, not a test that's specifically designed to confuse them about things they haven't even had a chance to learn yet.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.