Can We End the Testing Frenzy in the US?

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Can We End the Testing Frenzy in the US?

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Testing Frenzy Déjà Vu

In recent news, NAEP scores fell dramatically due to COVID-19’s impact on learning. Every media outlet has a take on the situation, and everybody seems concerned. The Secretary of Education said recently that we all need to “raise the bar and accelerate students’ learning in math and literacy.” Nowhere in his statement did he mention social and emotional learning or culturally responsive teaching.

Truth be told, the latest obsession over NAEP scores feels familiar. I began teaching in Southeast San Diego at a Title 1 school in 1999, and what I hear in the US media is exactly the type of thing I heard then. Twenty years after the implementation of No Child Left Behind and here we are.

But as a 24-year educator, I’ve been there and done that. 

We are thinking about NAEP scores all wrong. Our fixation on these scores isn’t serving kids, nor has it for a very long time. Worse, by focusing on test scores once more, we deny ourselves the ability to talk about what kids really need, what we saw they needed during the pandemic, and what we need to do to fix a system flawed to its core. 

My Escape From the Testing Frenzy

For me, a recent opportunity to get out of the US test-centric bubble allowed me to focus a bit more on things not related to NAEP scores. This summer, I was fortunate to attend a cultural exchange with the State Department’s Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC) Program. I jogged on calle siete in the early mornings and visited Bogota schools throughout the day. 

And in those schools, I finally felt the clouds of test score obsession dissipate. It was there that I did some real learning. What did I learn? And what does it have to do with NAEP scores?

Here are three takeaways from my cultural exchange in Bogota this summer. And more importantly, here is why they should matter to us all right now in a post-pandemic US.

“We are thinking about NAEP scores all wrong. Our fixation on these scores isn’t serving kids, nor has it for a very long time.”What A Trip to Colombia Taught Me About the US Testing Frenzy Click To Tweet

Takeaway #1 Surprise, kids love to sing when they sing every day in school.

Did you know that kids in Colombia, even in the poorest of schools, receive visual and performing arts (VAPA) instruction every day? Don’t kids in the US deserve that as well?

At the Ramon de Zubiria sede school in Bogota, students greeted our cohort of US teachers with a nearly hour-long performance featuring traditional and modern songs and dancing. Almost half of the school was involved in some way. I found this incredible as it was in August, which was the start of their school year. How, I wondered, did they find so many children to perform? 

Whether it’s traditional dance or music, the kids there get what kids in the US, especially kids in Title 1 schools like mine, haven’t gotten for decades! This artistic expression isn’t something measured by NAEP scores. But shouldn’t it still be a priority right now?

Takeaway #2 Surprise, kids and families with less want more. 

Comparing US schools to Colombia’s isn’t so much like comparing an apple to an orange. It is like comparing a vegetable to a fruit. You see, most schools in Colombia must serve as both elementary and secondary sites. That means elementary school students arrive in the morning and leave before lunch. And you guessed it. It also means that middle and high school students do not arrive at school until after lunch. As a result, the programs that affluent neighborhoods cherish in the US — and that few inner-city schools have — don’t exist for the majority of Colombian kids. 

So what was the number one thing I heard talking to children in schools in Bogota? 

You guessed it. 

“I wish we had sports and programs after school,” said one student who had sung Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with my colleague and me earlier that day. “But our school is busy in the morning with elementary school kids. And we’re very poor.”

This conversation made me wonder about the focus of our stimulus money in the US and our efforts to “raise the bar” here. We could fund after-school programs for every student in the US if we chose to. We also know there are incredible parallels between extra-curriculars like sports, music, and clubs on student achievement. As schools plan to spend their stimulus dollars, are we considering the lack of these activities on our youth, especially youth of color? Are we back to being all-in on test scores in reading and math, denying still a student’s right to participate in the parts of school that are most motivating?

Takeaway #3 Surprise, students who work hard want opportunities for all that hard work.

One of the most powerful exchanges in our trip came during a torrential downpour. Soaking wet, we arrived at Bogota’s Access Program on calle 19. We were greeted by recent high school graduates, warm coffee, and sweet Colombian candies. Grouping up, each of our US teachers led conversations around topics that our hosts knew would inspire deep conversations. One young lady, who came to Bogota from a small rural, indigenous village in the south of Colombia, told me she was used to quite a lot more rain than this. She said that she and all of her classmates were selected from the top of their respective secondary programs around the nation. Then, they were invited to participate in a program that in the US would likely lead to a scholarship and a high-salaried position after college. But in Bogota, the young adults I spoke with, the top of their class, were worried about finding any white-collar work at all. It was their number one concern. Not classwork. Not which major they’d choose. 

I asked, “In what ways can we make opportunities more equitable for graduates in Colombia?” 

The proud, smart, assertive, indigenous Colombian young woman before me said, “It isn’t fair. But I study, hoping for change. I don’t study for grades. I study because there is a small chance I can advocate for people like me from my village.”

It made me reflect on our consistent and continuous lack of conversation back home to increase opportunities for our graduates of color. What good is student achievement on standardized tests if those students do not have equitable opportunities when they graduate? How are we closing this gap with the many stimulus dollars we are spending, and our efforts to “raise the bar on achievement?” Are we even doing so at all? Other data, besides NAEP, say no

After my colleagues and I parted ways in Bogota, I traveled on my own around the country and in the region. And then, I flew home to the US, where I participated in a back-to-school meeting that once again fixated on raising test scores. I didn’t hear anyone talk about social and emotional learning. I didn’t hear anyone discussing culturally responsive teaching. 

And it made me realize that the view into Bogota that the State Department’s TGC program had afforded me was both timely and powerful. Kids around the world want what US students want too. And around the world, in all of our lessons, the playing field is not the same. Fixing this should be at the heart of all of our efforts to raise the bar on any and all achievement. Kids need opportunity, not just study. They need extracurriculars that make them whole, not just push past the proficiency line. They need social and emotional learning embedded in curriculum that is taught in a culturally responsive way by teachers who are human beings aware of their duty to do so. Doing so gives our students a purpose to raise their own bar. 

Denying them these opportunities by shaking our fists at test scores should be beneath the bar we set for ourselves as educators.

And yes, our students, all of them, need to sing too. Whether it’s on a test or not.
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