The Curse of Testing: Narrow Curriculum

The Curse of Testing: Narrow Curriculum

Your Week in Education 8/31 By Danielle Bonnici

What should we teach?

An interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times discussed the curse of standardized testing this week.  Natalie Wexler reports that tests are blamed for narrowing curriculum to focus only on reading and math. The problem is so grave that Congress is considering making changes to the laws to reduce the overwhelming emphasis on tests and test scores. However, Wexler argues that changing the law would not change the trend of reducing time spent on science and social studies.

She points out that since 1977, time spent on science and social studies has continually decreased from 50 minutes to about 10 minutes in 2012. Wexler believes this is a fundamental pedagogical flaw that the best way to teach is to instill skills rather than knowledge. Just as an aside, I don’t know one teacher who doesn’t teach knowledge- graduate education programs tend to focus on McTighe and Wiggins’s Understanding by Design, a method of lesson planning that focuses on building background knowledge to develop skills. In my nine years of teaching, UBD was a touchstone to myself and my colleagues, and the foundation of education in the school I taught in.

Knowledge vs Skills

Studies have shown that you can’t improve skills without background knowledge – history, vocabulary, basically, CONTEXT. This may seems like common sense to many of us, but according to Wexler, most schools and educators do not focus on understanding. Education theorist E. D. Hirsch has been arguing for years that teachers need to center on knowledge. He was largely dismissed as being “reactionary,” but has lately come to the fore among education reformers because of the Common Core.

Design vs Implementation in the Common Core Curriculum

Examination of the Common Core shows that its creators intended it to develop knowledge rather than skills; they wanted to create a way to “build knowledge systematically.”  Before the Common Core was widely implemented, I was trained in its tenets. I have to admit that I was initially excited by the idea because everything in the training showed how it was designed to help students grow as thinkers, to become individuals who delve into ideas and topics in order to create an informed opinion.

I felt that it created a line of inquiry for students to help them be better prepared for college. However, the implementation of these initially good ideas has left me and many other teachers bereft of joy in their profession.

What Went Wrong with the Common Core?

Wexler claims that because most states are left to interpret the implementation of the Common Core on their own, most continue to drill students on skills needed for the test rather than the knowledge they will need to succeed.

Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham maintains that all reading comprehension tests are “knowledge tests in disguise.” He believes that the randomness of the topics and reading passages in the tests rely on a student having a wider base of general knowledge. The less understanding and general knowledge a student has, the more difficult the tests, and the lower the scores.

The benefits of having the skills Willingham supports are fact. Our education outsider Hirsch founded an organization that developed the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum that has been applied in schools across the country. Students who took part in the program outperformed other students in reading, science, and social studies. Some schools, like Success Academy and Icahn have adapted this approach into their curriculum and rely more on content. The results have been widely lauded, however, the techniques they use, especially Success, have been questioned and criticized.

What Will Schools Need to Do?

Wexler believes schools will need to retool, retrain, and redevelop everything from teacher training to analysis of student success, but because these processes will be left to individual states, progress will be slow at best. She closes: 

“While standardized tests didn’t cause the curriculum to narrow, they’re a useful reminder that some students have acquired a lot less knowledge than others. But if we want to finally begin to remedy that, we can’t just teach the skills the tests seem to call for.”

I hope this gives all of you some food for thought as you approach the beginning of the school year. I’m sorry for no “lighter” school news this week.  I’ll make it up to you next week!

Danielle Bonnici is a program coordinator at CITE. Danielle is a certified teacher with nine years of experience teaching high school in New York City and abroad. She also loves yoga.

CITE is the Center for Integrated Training and Education . For over 25 years, CITE has and continues to train TEACHERS (Early Childhood, Literacy, Special Ed, Grad Courses, DASA); COUNSELORS (School, Mental Health Masters, Advanced Certificate); and ADMINISTRATORS (SBL, SDL, Public Admin, Online PhD) in all five boroughs of NYC, Yonkers, and Long Island.

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