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Dennis Shirley is the Duganne faculty fellow and professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. His new book with Andy Hargreaves is entitled Five Paths of Student Engagement: Blazing the Trail to Learning and Success.
Shirley contends in this article in Commonwealth Magazine that standardized testing no longer fits the needs of students, if it ever did.
AS WE EMERGED from the pandemic’s constraints, we finally had the freedom to book dinner reservations and plan a summer vacation, but in the midst of that liberation, our students were obligated to the policy of standardized academic testing.
Despite opposition by every Massachusetts professional educational association, the political appointees in the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the commissioner and secretary of education responded to COVID-19 by administering the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to third to eighth grade students to conclude the school year, even though Superintendent Jeff Riley previously said, “We’ve spent a lot of time on systems and structures, on accountability and test scores. We need to get back to instruction, and deep teaching and learning.”
What’s going on? For years, standardized testing advocates have been on the defensive because the tests failed to improve student achievement as promised by reformers. Second, the rise of the testing industry was correlated with growing rates of anxiety and depression among young people. Third, tests aggravated rather than ameliorated differences in achievement among racial and ethnic groups, and between social classes.
Enter climate change strikes that peaked in 2019, the pandemic, and the surge of racial struggles during the past year. The triple whammy of environmental, health, and societal challenges was surprising and emboldened critics who want a different kind of education that speaks to their concerns and aspirations rather than the clamoring for accountability of distant government bureaucrats.nullThe critics are no fringe group. For years, public opinion surveys have revealed that a majority of Americans agreed that there was too much testing in schools. Defenders fought back by arguing that the tests are objective, that they inflict little or no damage on students, and that they emphasize that what is taught in schools must be taken seriously. If there are problems with testing, they say, the tests can be revised–but not suspended.
Is there an escape from the impasse?
Shirley believes there is.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get our schools focused on teaching and learning rather than testing and accountability. We must not squander it. It’s going to be arduous, but the trendlines are clear: COVID-19 is winding down in the US, so let’s make dinner reservations and summer vacation plans, and when it comes to schools, let’s make sure our students are free to learn—and that our teachers are free to teach, too.