National Testing or National Programming?

By Kittl, Richard | The Humanist, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

National Testing or National Programming?


Kittl, Richard, The Humanist


Bill Clinton entered his second term as president proclaiming education as his "number one priority" As such, he's called for national achievement standards for students to be measured by tests developed by the federal government. However, if his current ambition of implementing a national testing program is successful, his legacy upon learning in our country may be detrimental for years to come. Setting aside such arguments as the historical failures of outcomes-based education and that the money spent will provide nothing more than overpriced statistics, let us take a few moments to specifically consider national testing and its possible effects on English education, why it will fail in this subject, and perhaps what might work in its place.

One argument advancing the case for national testing is that students throughout the country must obtain certain basic knowledge and skills. In writing, for example, by the time young people graduate from high school, they should be able to compose anything from a business letter to a literary essay, recognize the characteristics of an author's work according to the different artistic and socioeconomic periods, and use acceptable grammar. Indeed, students should have obtained all sorts of intellectual and practical knowledge (to include skills) by the time they leave our public schools. However, these requirements should be left to local schools and boards of education, which can better consider community needs and parental input. Perhaps state panels could even agree on very general requirements through national consensus, but we should never allow a distant federal government to impose specific and possibly learning-obstructive requirements on our public schools.

Making local schools and boards of education responsible for meeting these goals and requirements may require more observation and supervision of teachers. To achieve this, many school districts have already embraced mentoring programs, whereby well-respected, experienced teachers provide guidance to and oversee the progress of less-experienced teachers. Another alternative is to establish higher levels of entry and continuing education for teachers; they should certainly be well versed in general teaching methods, as well as their specific subject areas. In this manner, the increased educational funding promised by the president should be put directly into our schools--not into potentially trivial tests. We ought to support our teachers and the positive things they do and allow them to teach as they teach best.

Under Clinton's outcomes-based system, a teacher would be forced to "teach to the test" in fear of losing his or her job as a result of students' test results. Because national tests, in the interest of efficiency and simplicity, tend to focus only on certain subjects, many important works would be ignored. For example, if an English student is required to know all the elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet, then a teacher may not ever get around to teaching the wonderful socially and morally conscious Othello. Literary techniques can be learned using a great variety of works, and it is merely human nature that a teacher will better achieve student learning if allowed the freedom to meet curricular goals by tapping her or his particular areas of expertise. …

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