The impact on the american public school system

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Democracy and education are terms that are clearly definable yet easily misunderstood. Education is the process of shaping society and future generations (Hollis, as stated in Carr & Harnett, 1996); however, it is more than merely teaching young people to read, write, and decipher. Education is about preparing people to become responsible citizens, improving social conditions, and promoting cultural unity (Do We Still Need Public Schools, 1996). Democracy, on the other hand, is a familiar word that continues to be at the center of confusion and misuse. Defined as a type of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them, democracy is a set of ideals and principles generally surrounding the idea of freedom.

When collectively attempting to define democracy and education, it is easy to find yourself amongst a sea of vagueness, confusion, and bewilderment. Perhaps the most effective way to define, explain, or understand the interconnectedness between democracy and education is to present a clear example of a critical issue within the American education system and the impact it has on our nation's democracy: standardized testing for accountability.

Standardized testing for accountability, also known as high stakes testing, has become a contentious cause for debate. It, according to Dylan (2010), is best described as "the use of standardized achievement tests for the purpose of holding teachers, schools, and districts accountable" (p. 107). Living in a democratic society, teachers, schools, and districts are being held accountable by taxpayers and parents (although these are often the same people) for the sole purpose of ensuring that students enrolled in the American public school system are receiving an appropriate education.

The history of standardized testing for accountability can date back to the nineteenth century when public schools in England and Wales had been financed by voluntary organizations. By 1833, the role of funding within the public schools expanded to include grants for the construction of new buildings, the training of teachers, and for the encouragement of attending school (Dylan, 2010). In 1858, a Royal Commission was established to inquire into the state of popular education in England and to consider what measures were required for extension of sound and cheap instruction. The Commission's report, published in 1861, recommended that the amount of public money paid to each elementary school should depend on three factors: the condition of the school buildings; student attendance; and the performance of the students attending the school on an oral examination of every child in every school to which grants were paid.

Like England and Wales, standardized testing within the United States dates back to the nineteenth century; however interest in standardized testing for accountability may be traced to the landmark 1966 report Equality of Educational Opportunity, also known as the Coleman report for its lead author, sociologist James Coleman. Written as a study to compare the distribution of resources and opportunities among children of different races, the Coleman report also examined differences in achievement scores, or outcomes. Ravitch (2002) stated that the study was significant for many reasons, including the "shift in research focus from inputs to results, resulting in the authors' decision to examine how school resources affected achievement" (p. 14).

Prior to the Coleman report, education reform had focused primarily on the distribution of resources, on the assumption that more generous provisions for teachers' salaries, facilities, textbooks, and supplies would fix whatever ailed the nation's schools. After the Coleman report, reformers advanced a broader array of proposals, many of which sought changes in performance rather than, or in addition to, increases in resources (Ravitch, 2002). This shift in focus from resources to student achievement was facilitated by the increased availability of test scores.

In 1970, the establishment of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) provided cumulative new data and trend lines to document educational achievement of American students. By 1992, the NAEP reporting was expanded to include students in participating states. As more and more information was collected about student performance, elected officials came under pressure to do something about low achievement and about the large gaps among different groups of students. Confronted with the need to improve their schools in order to attract new industries to their states and localities, elected officials, according to Ravitch (2002), looked at education much as they looked at other functions of government and at private corporations. Elected officials concluded that what mattered most was results - that is, whether students were learning. They used test scores as the best measure of student learning, and they urged that schools should focus relentlessly on improving student achievement.

By the early 1980s, governors were turning to business leaders as their natural allies in trying to improve their state's educational system. In every state, education was the single biggest budget item, usually consuming 40 percent of the state's expenditures (Ravitch, 2002). Some governors wanted to get education under their control, some wanted to make education spending more cost effective, and most wanted to accomplish both. The governors looked to business leaders for advice on managing complex, labor-intensive organizations. The business leaders looked at the schools through the lenses that were customary for them. They expected to see transparency of reporting about budget, resources, operations, and results; they expected to see accountability for performance. They encouraged governors and other elected officials to consider incentive structures that worked routinely in business to improve performance.

In April 1983, the biggest catalyst for change within the public school system came in the form of a report titled A Nation At Risk. The National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its eye-opening report that indicted educational officials, schools leaders, and the American public for complacency ("A Nation Accountable," 2008). The recommendations set forth in A Nation At Risk promised lasting reform through demanding the best effort and performance from all students, whether they are gifted or less able, affluent or disadvantaged, whether destined for college, the farm, or industry (U.S. Dept. of Ed., 1983). A Nation At Risk marked the beginning of an evolution in testing for accountability and standards-based education reform.

This movement towards standards-based education and assessment that began with A Nation At Risk went national with the passage of the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 (IASA). IASA reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), first enacted as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty that was designed to focus federal funding on poor schools with low achieving students. In exchange for emphasizing higher student learning outcomes, the revamped ESEA gave states and localities more flexibility to design and operate their own federally funded education programs. The 1994 ESEA was intended to work in concert with Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which supported state and local efforts to set challenging content and performance standards and to carry out school reforms that will raise the achievement levels of all students (U.S. Dept. of Ed., 1996).

With the new millennium, the standards and accountability movement reached a new level. President George W. Bush called for significant reforms at the federal level, which led to the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). This law, which was passed with bipartisan majorities in Congress and with the support of the business and civil rights communities, built on the foundation laid in the 1980s and 1990s by ensuring that states accepting federal government's targeted investment agree to measure and report on results in terms of standards and accountability.

No Child Left Behind was complex and contained many programs, however its central focus was accountability. This was an issue that brought together Republicans and Democrats. According to Ravitch (2002), had there not been bipartisan agreement on accountability, NCLB would never have become a law. Both parties believed that accountability was the lever that would raise achievement.

While many proponents for educational reform will argue that standardized testing for accountability is a means to instill a positive change, the validity and value of standardized testing is often subject for debate. Various studies raise questions about whether improvements in test scores actually signal an improvement for learning (Cannell, 1988). Other studies point to standardized tests' narrowness of content, their lack of match with curricula and instruction, their neglect of higher order thinking skills, and the limited relevance and meaningfulness of their multiple choice formats. According to Herman (1994), rather than exerting a positive influence on student learning, testing may trivialize the learning and instructional process, distort curricula, and usurp valuable instructional time.

When focusing on the effects of standardized testing for accountability, it is essential to determine whether or not improvements in tests scores actually signal an improvement for learning. According to Ravitch (2010), the information derived from tests can be extremely valuable, if the tests are valid and reliable. Test results can show what students have learned, have not learned, and where they need improvement. They can tell parents how their children are doing in comparison to other children of their age and grade. Test results can inform teachers and school administrators to determine which students need additional help or different methods of instruction. It can identify students who need help in learning English or special education services. They can inform educational leaders and policy makers about the progress of the education system as a whole. Results can show which programs are making a difference and which are not, which should be expanded and which should be terminated. Lastly, they can help to direct additional support, training, and resources to teachers and schools that need them (Ravitch, 2010).

The drawback with using standardized tests to make important decisions about people's lives is that standardized tests are not precise instruments (Ravitch, 2010). All tests have a margin of error and the same student could produce different scores when taking the same test on different days. Testing experts (Ravitch, 2010) frequently remind school officials that standardized test scores should not be used in isolation to make consequential decisions about students, but in conjunction with other measures of student performance, such as grades, class participation, homework, and teachers' recommendations.

When determining if a standardized test signals an improvement of learning, or lack thereof, validity, as stated by Riffert (2005), becomes a question of whether a test does indeed measure what its developers intended to measure. If a test fails to provide an acceptable level of validity for a certain purpose, the results are deemed useless. The validity of standardized tests relies largely on the curriculum taught by the teachers prior to the actual test. Adequate exposure to the curriculum allows each student a fair chance to gain knowledge of the material. However, it is virtually impossible to obtain curriculum validity at the state or national level due to a high degree of diversity within each classroom, school site, district, and state (Riffert, 2005). For this reason, rarely will the test produce results that replicate objectives that coincide with the classroom (Goodwin and Driscoll, 1980).

The effects of standardized testing for accountability go beyond reliability and validity. A common concern heard by educational leaders is narrowness of content due to a focus on core curriculum. Similarly, many proponents argue that standardized testing for accountability neglects higher order thinking skills and instead focuses on lower order thinking skills such as recall of facts and information (Dylan, 2010).

As proponents for standardized testing for accountability continue to focus on increasing test scores, teachers and administrators are forced to focus their efforts on test preparation, leaving many to question whether an increase in test scores signals an overall gain in knowledge. In a widely reported analysis, Amrein and Berliner (2002) examined the impact of the introduction of testing for accountability in 18 states. They concluded that although there was clear evidence that associating accountability (consequences) to test score outcomes had increased scores on the tests used within the program, there was no evidence of improved test scores on other related measures. Furthermore, they found that the introduction of standardized testing for accountability was associated with increased student dropout rates, inappropriate test preparation practices, and decreased teacher morale. A subsequent analysis (Amrein & Berliner, 2002) confirmed these findings and indicated that the introduction of high school graduation examinations was associated with a lowering of average academic achievement.

While standardized testing for accountability undoubtedly robs students of an authentic learning experience, the most chilling impact is the notion that high-stakes testing compromises our democratic society. Democracy is the foundation of our nation's history and future, and ensuring and sustaining it is at the heart of the American public school system. According to A Nation at Risk, "a high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom" (1983).

Because democracy assumes and depends upon active and engaged citizenry ("Do We Still Need Public Schools," 1996), the American public school system is the vehicle in which to educate all people in order to achieve certain basic democratic goals. According to Ravitch (2010), in a democracy, schooling is vitally important and very different from schooling in other societies. No other institution in our society is as suited as the public schools for introducing the young to both the ideas inherent in a social and political democracy as well as the ideals from which democracy is derived.

According to Wolk (2007), we are living in a school delusion. He poses the question, "Do we really believe that our schools inspire our children to live a life of thoughtfulness, imagination, empathy, and social responsibility?" (p. 649). Because of standardized testing for accountability, our nation, and our schools are afflicted with a dearth of educational imagination, a lack of pedagogical courage, and rampant anti-intellectualism (Wolk, 2007). Our textbook-driven curricula have become educational perpetual motion machines of intellectual, moral, and creative mediocrity. We dumb down and sanitize the curriculum in the name of techno-rational efficiency and "American Interests" (Wolk, 2007).

When our children's school experiences are primarily about filling in blanks on worksheets, regurgitating facts from textbooks, writing formulaic five-paragraph essays, taking multiple choice tests, and making the occasional diorama - that is, when they are devoid of opportunities to create an original thought - we should expect the obvious outcome: children - and later adults - who are unable to think for themselves. None of this should surprise us. Passive schooling creates passive people. If we want people to think, learn, and care about the many dimensions of life, if we want neighbors who accept responsibility of tending to the world and making it a better place, then we need schools and curricula that are actually about life and the world. Instead, we have schools that prepare children to think like a toaster (Wolk, 2007).

In order for democracy to continue on, there is an undoubted need for the production of democratic citizenry via the public school system. However, standardized testing for accountability is working against the production of democratic citizenry and is instead, manufacturing future citizens satisfied with mediocrity and ignorance. From scripted curriculum to a focus solely on mathematics and language arts, schools that are committed to only improving standardized tests scores have produced a nation of first-rate test takers. Our current public school system has done nothing to develop thoughtful, considerate human beings, or to educate a democratic citizenry (Ravitch, 2010).

The passage of No Child Left Behind has made testing and accountability our national education strategy. The main purpose was to raise test scores, regardless of whether or not students acquired any knowledge of history, science, literature, geography, the arts, and other subjects that were not important for accountability purposes. According to Ravitch (2010), emphasis on test performance to meet standards in certain academic areas may diminish the goal of building active and morally sensitive citizens who carry out their civic duties.

Over the last decade, educators, policymakers, and the public have begun to forge a consensus that our public schools must focus on better preparing all children for the demands of citizenship in the 21st century ("Investing In a Culture of Learning," 2010). This push has resulted in the rise of standardized testing as the means of educating and assessing the success of all students, schools, and districts enrolled in the public school system. However, as outlined within this paper, standardized testing for accountability has many unintended consequences, including: narrowing of the curriculum and experiences, a focus on lower level thinking as opposed to high order thinking, a growing dissatisfaction amongst educators and parents, and lastly, the notion that standardized testing for accountability compromises our democratic society. Despite the chilling and unnerving consequences, many proponents of educational reform are asking the question "if not standardized testing for accountability, then what?"

Performance based assessment, also known as authentic assessment, is an ambiguous concept to educators (Keyser & Howell, 2008). Some refer to as a specific assessment that reflects a real-world context while others describe it as an assessment aligned to real-world activities or some combination thereof. According to Wood, et al (2007), performance assessments are tools that allow teachers to gather information about what students can do with what they are learning - science experiments that students design, carry out, analyze, and write up; computer programs that students create and test out; research inquiries that they pursue, seeking and assembling evidence about a question, and presenting it in written and oral form. Whether the skill or standard being measured is writing, speaking, scientific or mathematical literacy, or knowledge of history and social science research, students actually perform tasks involving these skills and the teacher observes and gathers information about, and scores the performance based upon a set of pre-determined criteria.

Performance based assessment, often locally controlled and involving multiple measures of achievement, offer a way to move beyond the limits and negative effects of standardized testing for accountability (Wood, et al, 2007). When comparing standardized testing for accountability and performance based assessments, the research (Wood et al, 2007) suggests that such assessments are better tools for showing the extent to which students have developed higher order thinking skills, such as the abilities to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. They lead to more student engagement in learning and stronger performance on the kinds of authentic tasks that better resemble what they will need to do in the world outside of school. They also provide richer feedback to teachers, leading to improved learning outcomes for students.

As a nation, we need a strong and vibrant public education system. Ravitch (2010) stated that as we seek to reform our schools, we must take care to do no harm. In fact, we must take care to make our public schools once again the pride of our nation. Our public education system is the fundamental element of our democratic society. Our public schools have been the pathway to opportunity and a better life for generations of Americans, giving them the tools to fashion their own life and to improve the general welfare of all. To the extent that we strengthen them, we strengthen our democracy (pgs. 241-242).