I’ve just finished reading an excellent doctoral dissertation by Steven Van Zoost. Van Zoost is a secondary teacher in Nova Scotia and he is about to complete a doctoral program at the University of South Australia. The evidence from his dissertation is that Steven is a good and caring teacher who relies on authentic assessment to gauge student progress in his classroom. While he is committed to authentic assessment, his dissertation asks: what kind of people do authentic assessment practices make his students into?
This is a question we might well ask about the assessment practices that dominate in the United States. What kind of people do high stakes achievement tests make our students into? We might also wonder what kind of people these sorts of assessments make teachers into.
Arguably, testing practices in this country make students into winners and losers. No matter how well students learn, no matter how hard they work, some students will fail relative to their peers. NCLB may include the goal that all students pass state achievement tests by 2014 but this doesn’t mean that we expect all children to achieve at the same level. In the end, we identify the best students in terms of the failures of other students. If everyone was successful, we wouldn’t know who was “the best.” This is the real worry about grade inflation. There aren’t enough failures.
To the degree that high stakes tests lead to teach-to-test curriculum, these assessment practices construct students as empty vessels to be filled with skills and facts that will be on the test. Students may (or may not) do better on the tests, but they aren’t better readers and writers, for example.
The emphasis on skills and facts that will be on the test also turns students, even kindergarteners, into little workers who have no time for recess or frills like art and music. The push to full day kindergarten and extended school days are based on the assumption that too much unstructured free time diminishes learning. This affects not only the learning identities of individual children, but also the meaning of childhood.
High stakes testing is turning many teachers, particularly those working in underperforming schools, into highly stressed technicians who are pressured into putting test scores above meaningful student learning. Nichols and Berliner (2007) indicate the enormous pressure of high stakes testing is also turning at least some teachers (and administrators) into cheaters.
Resistance to the narrow range of teaching and learning identities made available in high stakes testing environments is turning many teachers into “former teachers” and many students into “dropouts.”