Kinstler: Testing pays, students pay more

Ethan Kinstler, Contributing Columnist

If you were a public school kid, chances are you were bombarded with a litany of standardized tests. Aside from those which are touted today as the prototype for testing student achievement, like the PSAT/NMSQT, SAT and ACT, students of every age across the country sit through other exams like the PARCC, MSA, and NYE Regents exam. 

However, do these exams actually achieve anything except being a mouthful of unknown acronyms? Certainly they are the cash cow of the educational world, as Pearson Education Inc., a multi-billion dollar non-profit and the largest standardized testing company in the world, paid its CEO a 1.5 million dollar bonus last year. 

So, clearly testing pays. But do students pay more? 

The push for standardized testing came during the Bush administration with the advent of the No Child Left Behind Policy. In theory, the policy was meant to standardize education for the lowest achieving students in hopes of improving academic performance. What began with the good intentions of improving education was quickly exploited by a now reinvigorated market.

By its very nature, standardized tests provided schools with an easy mechanism to compare achievement of their students with national averages. Companies like Pearson Education capitalized on this education boom and pumped out an alphabet soup of standardized tests, along with test review books, test-prep tutors and test “boot-camps” which taught students tips and tricks to be successful on the tests. Public schools bought into the hype like it was a drug. 

The plague of standardized testing reached epidemic levels when standardized tests transitioned from a test of student achievement to a report card for the school itself. How well a school’s student body performed on a standardized test became a grade for public schools. Schools with the best grades received the most government funding to ensure continued stellar performance. Not only did this have the harmful effect of pushing poorer schools further into obscurity, but administrators began pressuring their staff to prioritize exam performance. In turn, teachers began pressuring students to perform well on mountains of tests which arguably have little to do with actual academic achievement or capacity. 

So, what are the residual effects of standardized testing? According to an analysis of the effects of “high-stakes” testing, the focus on test-taking in middle-childhood means that “schools and teachers have had to adjust their curriculum and devote valuable learning time to test-preparation.” Furthermore, “corporations that design and score exams make huge profits from them, so they have an incentive to create and sell more tests.” As a result, the time now being devoted to studying for exams has led to a narrowing of curriculum. 

Educators have begun “teaching the test,” rather than simply teaching. Curriculum now includes test-taking tips, and class time is averted from activities like recess in order to give teachers more time to prepare students for an assessment. It is unsurprising, then, that students’ stress has markedly increased as a result. 

While a problem like a decrease in recess may seem more like Billy’s platform for student body president than a legitimate issue with real developmental consequences, it’s not. In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study on the importance of recess in schools, advising that it “should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” 

Research suggests that students are “better able to perform cognitively” following some type of break, be it recess or another designated relaxing time. For elementary students, recess can be critical in developing social skills.

Cutting recess is counterproductive because whatever time teachers gain will be useless without necessary mental breaks for students. Furthermore, it’s blatantly harmful to young children’s acquisition of important social skills like cooperation, communication and motor development. Nobody ever learned the power of sharing while memorizing a unit circle. Play is a crucial part of childhood development, and even a cursory glance at any number of blogs, scholarly articles and child psychology textbooks will confirm this fact. 

Standardized testing has turned students into the very things it was intended to prevent. Students have become masters at regurgitating test-taking strategies and ensuring that they answer within the bubble. However, in doing so students have lost the ability to think critically and creatively. The scourge of standardized testing has flushed public school education down the toilet. 

Unfortunately, current college-aged students are the guinea pigs for this type of test-centered curriculum. Therefore, the lasting effects of this type of high-stakes testing environment will not become evident until we begin demonstrating problems. Any number of articles already demonstrate that our generation is far more stressed compared to our parents and grandparents. 

Of course, only time will tell whether that stress is correlated to the onslaught of testing and the public school pressure-cooker curriculum. However, I think I can guess what we will come to see.