It’s easy to dismiss Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s recent plea to “reduce the time Connecticut students spend taking standardized tests” as an election-year ploy, given the most recent public polls on the topic.
But Malloy’s seeming shift in educational policy is as much a lesson in history as it is a political gambit.
Take Texas, for example.
Widely considered the trailblazer of the current standardized-testing movement in America, Texas initiated test-based accountability in 1993. One year after former Texas Governor George W. Bush was elected President, “the Texas model went nationwide when Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law, in January 2002.”
Standardized testing quickly became a cornerstone of education reform: NCLB morphed into Race to the Top under President Barack Obama, requiring states to use “cutting-edge data systems to track a child’s progress throughout their academic career, and to link that child’s progress to their teachers so we know what’s working and what’s not working in the classroom.”
Standardized testing, it seemed, was here to stay.
In 2013, however, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus underscored a shift in emphasis: “The goal of education is not to teach children how to pass a test but to prepare them for life. To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing, the Texas House has heard you.”
Subsequently, “a resolution opposing high-stakes testing has now been signed by more than 80 percent of the school boards in the state. Longtime observers of education policy are openly speculating that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the accountability movement [in the very state] where it was born.”
Standardized testing proponents in Texas were not the first reformers to do an about-face.
Diane Ravitch served as George H.W. Bush’s Assistant Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993. At the time, she was “a passionate advocate for injecting greater competition and accountability into the U.S. education system.” Nowadays, not so much.
“Test scores became an obsession,” Ravitch said in 2010, explaining the change of heart that inspired her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. “Many school districts invested heavily in test-preparation materials and activities. Test-taking skills and strategies took precedence over knowledge.”
Ravitch has continued her campaign against reform based on standardized testing with another book — Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools — as well as a widely read blog.
Critics could question the collective backbone of people like Ravitch and Texas lawmakers, but standardized testing and its ensuing pushback have a long history in this country.
“The testing groundwork was laid in 1837, when a lawyer and legislator in Massachusetts named Horace Mann became secretary of the newly created State Board of Education, part of the Whig Party’s effort to centralize authority and make schools modern and accountable,” writes University of Wisconsin professor William J. Reese. “After a fact-finding trip abroad, Mann claimed in 1844 in a nationally publicized report that Prussia’s schools were more child-friendly and superior to America’s.”
Consequently, more than 30,000 written tests were administered in Boston-area schools as a way to “identify the many teachers who emphasized rote instruction, not understanding. They named the worst ones and called for their removal.”
Long story short, the 19th century tests became highly controversial, sounding “eerily familiar: cheating scandals, poor performance by minority groups, the narrowing of the curriculum, the public shaming of teachers, the appeal of more sophisticated measures of assessment, the superior scores in other nations, all amounting to a constant drumbeat about school failure.”
Fast-forward to 21st-century Connecticut where the governor wants to scale back testing in schools. Is it a political maneuver? Certainly. At the same time, it’s neither bold nor original, considering the historical pendulum of standardized testing in America.
Apparently, that pendulum is now headed back in the other direction.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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