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Four bad words: teaching to the test 

There has been much debate over the past few weeks about Gov. Bev Perdue's recent decision to support the elimination of four standardized end-of-course tests in North Carolina high schools. Perdue argues that students are tested too much and this change will bring schools into alignment with an educational shift that is happening throughout the country — teaching students to think instead of regurgitating information.

Some opponents to Perdue's decision contend that the tests are needed in order to assess what students are learning, while others state that they are needed in order to assess the effectiveness of teachers. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning even argues that eliminating those four standardized tests may be unconstitutional. According to a report in The Charlotte Observer, "Manning, who manages carrying out the results of a public school funding lawsuit, has written a memo saying the test results are needed to monitor whether children are getting the 'sound basic education' the state Supreme Court ruled is required by the North Carolina constitution."

Despite the question of its constitutionality, which is a real factor, "teaching to the test" has not proven to be beneficial to students. As a professor, I can speak about the real outcome of teaching to the test: disconnected students who lack confidence in their opinions or critical thoughts.

Many of our students are bored out of their minds because of this linear approach to learning and are grade-obsessed to boot. Questions like, "What do I have to do to get an 'A'?" are commonplace or wanting to know exactly every detail of an assignment, no matter how clearly explained. For example, I may give them a short paper topic asking them to use MLA format and at least two secondary sources. Inevitably, I will get questions like, "What are the exact sources that we should use?" "What exactly do you want in the paper?" Basically, they are missing one of the main points of higher education, which is learning to think critically about a variety of subjects in order to develop informed opinions and insight about important issues.

Sometimes in life there is no right or wrong answer — just an informed opinion that is reached based on a diverse, interconnected and meaningful knowledge base. Standardized tests do allow one to measure certain areas of knowledge, but focusing on them to the exclusion of other forms of analysis or measurement is a mistake. Like other school systems, North Carolina is not eliminating standardized tests altogether — it is just decreasing the number of tests that students have to take, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Yes we want students to rise to the occasion of being challenged, but should it include angst and pressure about performing well on one test as opposed to performing well throughout the semester?

Therein lies the rub. Standardized testing has created a culture of distraught students and teachers who are so consumed with the testing, that there is little focus on the day-to-day experience of the student learner. It has been proven time and time again that standardized tests are created with certain biases, are often flawed in design, and really do not measure achievement or ability relative to the ways in which the scores are actually used. No one test, standardized or other, should be the sole basis for determining the achievement of a student.

Students need to know how to think for themselves, have confidence in their ability to construct a coherent and informed argument and convey their thoughts and ideas in a way that creates a meaningful academic experience. Teachers need to have some flexibility in the ways in which they connect with students, engage them in the learning process and ensure that they are able to compete on a level that could never be measured solely by a standardized test. Standardized tests have some value, but they are not the end all to be all. It's about time we realized that as a school system and as a nation. Perhaps the reason that American students are "falling behind" other student populations is because of our unwillingness to try something new or different or dare say it — go back to teaching styles and pedagogical approaches that were effective before standardized testing was introduced.

One thing's for sure, if we don't want American children left behind, we have to do something other than what has become the norm.

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