Discussion about ‘The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better’

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Book highlights trouble with standardized exams
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Koretz discusses his book as Mulgrew listens.
Rockman takes notes during the discussion.

That a cadre of teachers was taught to believe that test prep was actually quality teaching is the most dangerous and lasting legacy of the United States’ ill-fated obsession with high-stakes standardized tests, according to “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better,” a new book by a Harvard professor. “This is not an anti-testing book, but a book where we criticize the use of standardized testing,” said Dr. David Koretz, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the book’s author, during a discussion with UFT President Michael Mulgrew at union headquarters on March 15. Koretz’s book traces how the pressure to raise test scores shapes both what is taught and how it is taught in public schools nationwide. Mulgrew commented that, as Koretz noted in the book, more than two decades worth of research shows that the nation’s obsession with standardized tests has not created a rich education for students. Yet despite the research, he said, ideologues and politicians can’t bear to give up their fixation with high-stakes testing: “The research tells us one thing, yet they continue to pass policies that ignore what it tells us.” Koretz pointed out that standardized tests weren’t initially devised to evaluate teachers. “If you go way back to when standardized testing was first designed three-quarters of a century ago, they were trying to design something that could supplement what you saw when walking into a classroom,” Koretz said. “We now know, for example, that the gap between rich and poor students is growing rapidly. How do we know that? We know because of standardized testing. It is a monitoring tool.” Retired teacher Lisa North said what she took away from the talk was that the worst effects of high-stakes testing are felt by children from low-income families. “They are the ones who spend much more of their learning time in test prep instead of being exposed to interesting curriculum that widens their knowledge and vocabulary,” she said. “The extremely large amount of money that is spent on the testing system should instead be used to enhance children’s learning.” Another retired teacher, Suzanne Rockman, said the book “reinforces what many educators fear to utter. We want real teaching, not teaching to the test.” Koretz, who chatted with audience members and signed copies of the book after the discussion, said no one has stepped forward to criticize his assertions and yet, he added, “I haven’t seen any substantial retreat from the policies I’m writing about.”

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