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Professional Opinion

Prosperity requires more rational testing in schools

Standardized assessments take the art out of teaching and measure wrong skills
Robert L. Urzillo is superintendent of the Blue Mountain School District in Pennsylvania.
Robert L. Urzillo is superintendent of the Blue Mountain School District in Pennsylvania.

The reform movement has been, and perhaps always will be, on-going.

We have witnessed the enactment of No Child Left Behind, which had the admirable goal of having all children read on grade level by 2014. That was followed by Race to the Top, another program that required standardized testing.

The latest permutation of reform is the Common Core, or as it is called in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Core. The Common Core and its various state derivatives have, of course, been much maligned.

Conceptually, the Common Core makes sense; we live in a highly mobile society. Therefore, students should have common standards of learning throughout America. Additionally, we compete on a global basis with other nations for economic supremacy. Hence, students should study from a cognitively challenging curriculum.

In my estimation, the Common Core or Pennsylvania Core is a logical response to individual and national needs. A recent article in Education Next stated that states with high Common Core standards performed better academically.

All of the reforms listed above came about through legislative enactment. The people responsible for the legislation were and are well-meaning.

I think that it is time to separate increased curricular rigor from the testing requirements when we evaluate school reform movements. Specifically, I do not believe that the problem we face in schools is based on the Common or Pennsylvania Core. Instead, it stems from the proliferation of standardized testing.

Testing drawbacks

Testing, in and of itself, is not the villain in this latest phase of reform. The effort to measure and improve student performance in basic skills is essential. Ideally, all students will acquire the ability to read, write and compute. I am not opposed to testing, although I believe that the primary purpose should be diagnostic.

I also believe that we need more formative testing that evaluates on a daily or weekly basis. We should de-emphasize the high-stakes summative assessment that takes place once a year. After all, students will be evaluated on a near-daily basis when they join the workforce.

The current high-stakes standardized testing movement causes multiple problems. First, it leads to formulaic instruction that takes the art out of teaching.

Second—and particularly at the elementary level—it tends to dilute the curriculum and focus on basic skills to the exclusion of other necessary facets of the learning experience. This leads to the third problem: The development of basic skills, while an absolute necessity, is not enough. We must transcend skill development and teach content.

More importantly, we must teach students to think, to apply knowledge and to solve problems both individually and collaboratively.

Learn how to learn

Schools, by their very nature and design, are complex institutions that promote personal, social and economic growth. We live in a world where jobs regularly become obsolete and the demands for greater skills, knowledge and understanding increases constantly.

The greatest gift a school and teachers can give a student is the ongoing ability to learn how to learn.

If we as a nation are going to maintain our prosperity—and if we are going to develop the scientists, engineers and mathematicians who will keep us competitive in a world-based competitive economy—we will need to constantly upgrade our standards of learning in K12.

A key to that is devising a rational system of assessment that truly measures what is important for a person to know and do in the 21st century. DA

Robert L. Urzillo is superintendent of the Blue Mountain School District in Pennsylvania.