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Excessive Testing Curbs Creative Teaching

Howard Karlitz, in our October 2010 issue, argued that standardized testing should be used to help teachers improve their instruction

As American schools sink deeper into an instructional morass and their ranking vis-à-vis schools in other industrialized nations slips to second tier status, the more we hammer away at the need for standardized tests to not only gauge student performance, but now teacher performance. As an educator with forty-plus years of experience in both the private and public sectors, I’ve witnessed test score mania spread like a California wildfire, leaving behind a wasteland devoid of gifted, creative and effective instructional methodologies.
No Child Left Behind sparked the conflagration. As this flawed philosophy morphed into a flawed operational system, mass quantifiable data in the form of test scores became the only seemingly rational way to evaluate it. A blizzard of standardized tests fell from the rarefied levels of our government’s educational bureaucracies, blanketing state and district school systems in a shroud of examinations measuring everything from reading and math to rock climbing and basket weaving. From the very first day of the school year, educators know that scores are the Holy Grail, and that all instruction is geared to a series of tests that loom many months away. Teachers and students at all levels are now locked into a daily grind of pre-packaged or “teacher-proof” instruction. And nobody up there in bureaucratic heaven seems to grasp the madness of it all, that as a result of this paradigm shift, students are no longer learning to read, but learning to take a reading test; no longer learning science or math or writing, but learning to take a science, math or writing test. And the difference is profound. The former involves creative thinking, higher order reasoning skills and the potential for the love of subject matter. The latter involves regurgitation of rote-learned material that will not only soon be forgotten, but has little or no connection or relevance with other rote-learned, test-centered material. Thus the days of an integrated curriculum, where the learning process flows among disciplines, has passed. And sadly, it is this very process from which true innovation is born. If aspects of creativity involve the ability to see the relationship between variables in diverse disciplines, then teaching subjects within an isolated, cage-like, test-driven milieu limits the possibility of generating innovative interdisciplinary ideas. And this limitation applies to teachers as well as students.
I am not opposed to standardized tests. In fact, I consider them to be an important tool in assessing progress. But the use of their results to assess teacher performance runs counter to everything I believe creative instruction is about. My philosophy has always been to clearly articulate to teachers the goals associated with moving from point A to point B through a year’s curriculum, and then giving them latitude in terms of how they get there. In other words, creative individuality should not only be allowed, but encouraged in regard to day-to-day classroom management. No two teachers should be compelled to teach the same test-defined lesson at the same time in the same manner simply because they are in the same school in the same district. Sadly, this practice is widespread, evolving out of a need to control the educative process by an administrative hierarchy that more and more is losing touch with the true classroom dynamic. It is this assembly line model that limits excitement and spontaneity in the teaching/learning process.
Then why standardized tests at all? Simply stated, for the purpose of improving instruction. At the end of the year, let teachers meet at grade or departmental level conferences to discuss what has worked for some and not worked for others. By sharing this information with a competent principal in a professional, threat-free environment, work can begin on replicating positive practices on a school-wide basis, and restructuring or eliminating those practices that did not yield desired results.
In the end, it is the school community that is improved, not necessarily test scores. And it is the student who ultimately benefits the most, as an environment of creative instruction begins taking form, shifting from a competitive to a collaborative dynamic.

After earning his masters degree and doctorate from Columbia University, Dr. Howard Karlitz joined the Horace Mann-Lincoln Institute, where his research and publications centered on testing, school management and curriculum development. He has also served in numerous administrative capacities including principal, director, and Headmaster of the Meadow Oaks School. (See He has taught at all levels, both in regular and special education settings, as well as graduate and undergraduate courses at the college level.

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