James Kirylo: “That Time of Year: Spring and Testing”
Below is a guest post by my valued colleague, James Kirylo, who taught at Southeastern Louisiana University before accepting a position at the University of South Carolina. He has also taught at the University of South Alabama, Universidad Evángelica del Paraguay, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
As I read Kirylo’s post, I noted its timeliness.
The flowers are blooming and the lawnmowers are humming all over my neighborhood.
Must be testing season.
That Time of Year: Spring and Testing
James D. Kirylo
It is that time of the year again. The unfolding of nature with its brilliance in color, its sweet aroma, and the emergence of new life gives pause and illuminates all that is good. It is also that time of year when public schools across South Carolina—indeed the nation—energetically announce standardized test “kick-off” time with pep rallies, balloon send-offs, and a host of other activities, further reducing what schooling has sadly become. Spring is in the air.
Though spring and the birth of new life have had their way since the beginning of time, the intense association of testing and spring is a relatively new phenomenon. Particularly since 1983 when a major document titled A Nation at Risk purported that public education was doing a mediocre job, which was followed by subsequent school reform efforts (e.g., No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and others), there has been a proliferation of standardized testing in American public education.
Whereas in 1950 those who completed high school took only approximately three standardized tests through their entire K-12 experience, and whereas in 1991 those who completed their K-12 experience took an average of 18-21 standardized tests, students today upon completion of their K-12 school experience can take anywhere between 60-100 standardized tests. In short, more than 100 million standardized tests are administered yearly across the U.S., annually costing the states approximately 1.7 billion dollars.
This intense focus on testing and its results have moved into the realm of obsession, so much so that we now refer to “high-stakes” testing simply because they are becoming the sole criteria on how we assess and evaluate our children, teachers, administrators, and school districts. In short, the “reform” movement provoked by A Nation at Risk can be characterized as one that is now controlled by the profit-making testing industrialized complex.
Truly, it has become disturbingly normalized in explaining reform efforts with detached terminology such as outcomes, ratings, scores, performance, monetary rewards, school takeovers, school closures, competition, and comparing and contrasting. As a result we have created an educational system that is analogous to describing a for-profit corporation, which ultimately results in the creation of “winners” and “losers.”
This corporate-speak loses sight of the humanity behind this type of discourse, which works to objectify school-aged youth, fosters a constricted view of what is educationally important, and largely blames teachers if students don’t “perform” to some kind of arbitrary expectation.
Make no mistake, this testing environment has placed school-aged youngsters under unnecessary stress, where many are fearful, dealing with bouts of panic, crying spells, apathy, sleeplessness, and depression. Therefore, it ought not be of any great surprise that droves of parents from around the country have opted-out their children from taking these tests, a number among which I include myself.
And perhaps ironically, this testing movement has yielded very little positive results in improving our schools. In fact, one could argue that our nation is more at risk than it was 30 years ago, still leaving scores of children left behind. Indeed, illiteracy remains high, millions of children still live in poverty, and countless of youngsters are still attending classes with limited resources in schools that are old and dilapidated.
Of course, we aren’t able to constructively work on solutions unless we recognize that there is an awareness of the problem. That is, unless policy-makers and other decision-making entities realize that a test-centric environment is ultimately unhealthy for our youth, we will continue down this spiral of alienating many of them from opportunity, equity, and a developmentally appropriate educational experience.
To that end, as we consider school aged youth during this time of year, perhaps the moment has come—this spring—that we rethink how we assess and evaluate our school-aged youth. In fact, if we exert the same amount of energy, fervor, and expense on rectifying structural inequalities as we do on our testing fixation, and if we would celebrate schooling with pep rallies and balloon send-offs with which we genuinely recognize the individual gifts, talents, and uniqueness of all children through multiple fashions, I would argue we would see an emergence of new life in our schools. Spring is in the air.
James D. Kirylo is associate professor of education at the University of South Carolina. His latest book is titled Teaching with Purpose: An Inquiry into the Who, Why, and How We Teach (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).