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Testing Narrows a School’s Focus

June 19, 2012

In today’s teaching environment it is a given to everyone working in a school that constant high-stakes testing has narrowed the curriculum down for all kids.  For those students, especially for English Language Learner (ELL) students the curriculum is narrowed down even further.  In many districts they are having elementary students who perform low on English Language Arts tests take a 3 hour block of ELA just to prep them to do better on ONE SINGLE TEST!  This is insane, and it is really harming the well-rounded little people we are trying to mold.

In this article they discuss Arne Duncan and his praise for testing, testing, and some more testing.  The authors also point out what is wrong with that approach.  They are right!

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was in New York City earlier this week praising education officials on the increased use of test scores to define student, teacher and school success. We were also in New York City, conducting a research study in several public schools. As part of a two-year research project, we have had the privilege of working in dozens of fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms across the five boroughs.

Contrary to Duncan’s perspective, we have been struck by the shared concern expressed by many teachers and administrators over the increased city, state, and federal emphasis on English Language Arts and math test scores.

Certainly, curricular narrowing — where certain academic subjects are eliminated or curtailed to focus on the tested subjects — is well recognized as an unintended consequence of accountability policies and student testing programs. As early as 2006, a study by the Center for Educational Policy had shown that 44 percent of American school districts reported cutting time from social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and/or recess in the wake of No Child Left Behind legislation to increase time spent on the subjects that were tested (ELA and math).

Yet, there’s a bigger issue that’s not getting the attention it deserves: Many public schools are experiencing a similar narrowing of their broader school purpose as they struggle to accommodate the nearly exclusive academic and cognitive focus from federal and state policymakers. Many elementary schools are facing a growing identity crisis as their fundamental purpose shifts from a shared emphasis on emotional, social and physical development to one focused on academic/cognitive development.

In our book, “The School Mission Statement: Values, Goals, and Identities in American Education,” we explore how a variety of American schools (e.g., public, private, charter, vocational, Waldorf) define their broader purpose and aims through a systematic analysis of their mission statements.

Looking across the mission statements of public elementary schools, we found that the majority expressed an intention to serve a variety of purposes that include the cognitive, emotional, social and civic development of students, as well as fostering a safe environment and creating global awareness.

In fact, we found that three in four elementary schools emphasized the importance of fostering students’ emotional development in their school mission statement, while only one in four expressly reported an academic/cognitive focus.

Our research points to a fundamental problem at the heart of many educational policy disagreements: The primary emphasis on academic/cognitive skills espoused by current educational policy must reconcile the fact that many educators and school leaders continue to believe in substantially broader purposes. Moreover, as increased sanctions and now teacher evaluations are linked with students’ ELA and math test performance, the broader purposes of schooling are in danger of being narrowed even further.

That last paragraph hit the mark perfectly.  No matter how much I try I just can’t see how putting so much pressure on elementary school kids to perform on a single test, while neglecting other subjects, is doing anyone, especially those students any good!

Damian Bebell teaches at Boston College and is a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy. Steven E. Stemler teaches at Wesleyan University and President of the New England Educational Research Organization.

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