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Op-Ed: One-Size-Fits-All Testing Isn't What Our Kids Need to Succeed

Standardized assessments don’t match up with real-life challenges and the wide variety of individual abilities

melissa tomlison
Melissa Tomlinson

While New Jersey’s state commissioner of education, David Hespe, may be attending the Task Force Commission's public hearing sessions, the question is whether or not he is actually listening.

After the testimony, Hespe expressed his wishes for people to address the alternatives to PARCC and standardized assessments instead of just complaining about what has currently been put into place.

Several conversations have taken place about alternative forms of assessment, including a discussion about portfolio assessments that was submitted during January's open public forum session at the State Board of Education meeting.

Hespe's direct quote, as reported by John Mooney of NJ Spotlight, reads: “What is missing from this conversation and what I have asked from testifiers to address is what would they do to this societal problem where half of the students are graduating without the skills and knowledge they need.”

There is a glaring issue with his statement. The claim that half of the students are graduating without the skills and knowledge they need should lead us into a few questions.

First, where is this data coming from? Is this data from the Achieve-led study that was conducted with questionable methods of statistical analysis? One has to wonder: How can New Jersey have one of the top-rated public school systems in the country, yet only half of the students have graduated with the necessary skill set? , Maybe we need to take a moment to discuss some definitions.

What are the skill sets that we as a society see as necessary for the future success of our children? What kind of future do we want to be shaping? Do we want well-rounded children who grow up with exposure to the arts, culture, and music? Or do we want over-tested, over-stressed children who see only the importance of achieving academic growth? Are we looking to provide our children with the skills that are necessary to instill a sense of morals, coping skills, and human compassion? Or do we continue to narrow down the focus of academics to what can be measured on a standardized test, and use that as a predictor for future success?

Those questions lead us into another set of questions. What exactly is the definition of success for our children? Who is designing this skill set that is absolutely necessary to succeed? Have we succeeded if we reach the end of our Race to the Top and have left no child behind? Have we even been told exactly where it is that we are racing to, what goal is at the end, or what purpose has been accomplished when we get there?

If we take a look at the lessons history has taught us, it should not be to compete with our fellow human beings on this planet in the never-ending competition to have more, to earn more, and to control more.

What right does anyone have to define what success should look like for any other human being, child or adult?

As a society, we should really be having some in-depth conversations about defining success and how we can shape that definition for the betterment of life for future generations. For one student, success is measured at the end of each night when he has gotten his younger brother to complete his homework, eat dinner, and into bed at a decent time, while their mother is working her second shift. For another student, success can be measured when the four-times table has been correctly written. Yet another student has ended his day successfully when he has managed to resist the impulsiveness of his behavior that leads him to making sarcastic remarks to adults, resulting in disciplinary action.

So what exactly should success look like in schools? How should it be measured? According to Hespe, we are not yet doing that. Perhaps that is because we are forever narrowing down our focus to only academics, crowding out the arts and music, neglecting the fact that we, as adults, are responsible for a child as a whole.

If we were to redefine what successful schools look like, would we perhaps find better ways to serve our children and better prepare them with the skill sets necessary to achieve future success?

This is where the conversation of community schools needs to be developed. What do the children in a specific community need?

We should be targeting those areas and coordinating services so that they are brought to the schools, so that we can instill the importance of these institutions within a children's makeup at a young age. Partnerships with health-care, dental, emotional and behavioral health services should be created. Adult education needs to be incorporated, so that children see the value of continuous learning through adulthood while the benefits of assisting families in a community are addressed. Employment services, housing services, and financial counseling should all be available in a centralized location within a school campus area to ease access for families, while coordinating the needs between different areas through communication to produce more effective results.

Yet the question then remains, how will all of this be assessed? How will we know if the school is “up to standard” as an educational institution?

Instead of creating a test that will suddenly seem to improve every one's education through a set of standards, the discussion of what exactly what set of standards we need to measure should occur.

Equity of access of resources, healthy natural development of child, safe school environments and coordination of services are all necessary for a child to achieve true success.

The main determinate of this could easily be identifiable through analysis of prison statistics. Are we actively reducing the amount of youth being incarcerated? Are we actively decreasing the percent of young black males who are finding themselves in the system at an increasingly alarming rate? Can we actively find ways to prevent our youth from entering the prison system in the first place?

To see how a society is faring as a whole, one only needs to look at the largest group of the population that is not living within the normal identified definition of a productive citizen. Until such an issue is addressed -- how to stop a future of recurring statistics -- then we as a society have failed. We are only as strong as our weakest link.

The need and desire for assessment of student learning will still exist, if only for the benefit of opening discussions about our children and how they are doing in school. But these conversations need to look at more than merely a not-proficient or proficient rating on a single test.

They need to revolve around the child as a person. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can we utilize those strengths and help the child work with and overcome their strengths?

These are the key discussions that education teams within a school should be having. A system needs to be developed that assigns a team to be responsible for a group of students, allows them to set goals, creating plans, meeting to discuss progress and making adjustments when necessary.

This would create a different vision of professional development than we have seen in the past – but it will actually bring us back to what professional development should look like, researching and implementing professionally valued practices that will benefit both students and teachers.

Such a vision could come true, with time and money – money that is being spent instead on the PARCC exam and its related expenses and time that could easily be found by creating by child- centered professional communities with a purpose other than completion of more paperwork and forms for the state.

Some big questions need to be asked now that we are at a crossroads in education. What has been wrong with society in the past? What changes do we need to make to correct those wrongs? What role do schools play in supporting those visions?

What is it that our children really need?

Melissa Tomlinson is a special education teacher in the Buena Regional School District. She has been an advocate for public education on a state and national level as the Assistant General Manager of the Badass Teachers Association.

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