Last week, two of us from Character.org attended ASCD’s Legislative Advocacy Conference. The conference focused on empowering educators to voice their opinions on education policy, and more specifically the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). While ASCD’s legislative agenda has many facets, most of the discussion revolved around the importance of reducing standardized testing and creating multi-metric forms of assessment.
On the final day, we had the opportunity to bring our concerns to a variety of congressmen and congresswomen on Capitol Hill. Throughout the conference, we had discussed the phrase educating students to be “college, career, and citizenship ready.” As I visited my senator and representatives, I kept thinking about that phrase “citizenship ready.” What does that mean exactly?
Character.org stresses that schools must give students voice and choice and we look for evidence of this principle (Principle 9) when we evaluate Schools of Character applicants. Do they hold class meetings? Do they have a student-led school newspaper that that addresses issues that are important to them? Do students have a way to suggest improvements?
What about us, the educators? We have a representative government. Do we let our voices be heard? Sure, most of us vote in Presidential elections (57.5% in 2012 election according to the bipartisan policy center), but in other elections, voter turnout is often dismal (in New York’s 2014 election only 28.8% of those eligible voted, according to the New York Times). Besides voting, have you ever written to your congressperson? We know the power of being a role model. How can we do more to model citizenship?
As I met with my representatives from Virginia, I was struck by how much they wanted to hear our stories. Most of the people we met with had little-to-no experience as an educator. What if every representative heard from every teacher in his or her district? What kind of federal education policy would there be? If our congresspeople knew what our experiences in the classroom were like how it impact the ESEA reauthorization?
Standardized Tests are Taking Over
One of the teachers at the conference said that his district spends 90 days of the school year in testing, testing prep, and review. Wow. That’s nearly 50%. I read that the national average is 25%. These tests are primarily summative tests that don’t help a teacher learn what his or her students know. Time spent on testing eliminates time spent on instruction.
It’s not just the amount of time spent on testing. It’s also the limited focus of that testing. Of course, reading and math are important, but what gets measured is what gets counted and thus many subjects and skills are being neglected. What is getting shortchanged in your school? Arts? Science? Physical Education? Social Studies? Not only do all academics need to be valued, but non-academic skills, as well. Academics are important, but the kind of people students become is equally important. Social, emotional, and character development needs to be considered essential.
Narrow Focus of Tests Misses the Mark
We recognize the need for accountability but standardized tests are just one tool. There are a variety of measurements available that evaluate other important aspects of education. Our website has information on assessments for students, for teachers and for school-wide assessment, including a variety of climate surveys. Gallup has climate surveys, as well, including a student poll that “measures student hope for the future, engagement with school, and well-being - factors that have been shown to drive students' grades, achievement scores, retention, and future employment” [from the Gallup site].
Standardized tests are being used to evaluate things that they weren’t designed to measure, like teacher performance. Teachers and school leaders are the two most important in-school factors that affect student achievement and we should use the best tools available to evaluate them, not just a single test.
Recent data shows that many educators are feeling undervalued and demoralized. The most recent Met Life Survey of the American teacher showed that teacher satisfaction levels were at an all-time low, declining 23 percentage points in the last five years. A Gallup survey found that of all professions surveyed, teachers were the least likely to feel their opinions at work counted. That’s why we need people like you to speak up.
My day of advocating was instructive. I learned that legislators want to know their constituents stories so they can better evaluate the latest ESEA bill. By telling them your stories, you are not only helping them you are modeling good citizenship. As educators, our end goal is for all our students to become ethical and engaged citizens. It’s worth considering how our own behavior as educators is modeling that behavior. Becoming actively engaged in our government can help ensure that our students graduate “citizenship ready.”
Call to Action
How much has required testing affected your teaching? Has your school cut programs that focus on the arts, physical education and other subjects? Does the focus on testing outweigh the focus schools ought to have on developing good character. Let your congressperson know and encourage him or her to reduce the emphasis on standardized testing in the ESEA reauthorization. Email your stories to email@example.com Chairman Alexander has asked for all feedback be submitted to the Senate by Feb. 2. However, even after 2/2, consider writing to your representative about these issues.