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Standardized tests erode rather than enhance education, says psychology professor
07 January 2003

By Carol Hyman, Media Relations

Berkeley - The current "testing and sorting" culture in U.S. schools, which holds children accountable for scoring well on standardized tests, erodes rather than enhances education in America, according to new research by a University of California, Berkeley, psychology professor.

Rhona Weinstein says students are being tested on too narrow a range of achievements, that money spent on testing could be used for better purposes, and that teachers are suffering from pressure to "teach to the test."

Worst of all, says Weinstein, who has spent years studying how a high or low expectation about a child's academic ability can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, is that increased emphasis on testing diminishes the opinions that low-performing youngsters have of themselves.

Based on her studies of elementary school students, "children as young as six know where they stand academically, especially in classroom settings that make such so-called achievement differences very obvious," she says, "and this means they are vulnerable to not believing in themselves from an early age.

"In this testing and sorting culture, achievement differences on tests are made even more salient to children, and the gap in motivation will grow between the high and low performers."

In her recent book, "Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schooling" (Harvard University Press, 2002), based upon decades of research about the conditions under which low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies in the schools, Weinstein argues that current educational reform does not make use of findings on how to promote positive prophecies for a diversity of students.

What is required is a shift in the achievement culture of schools, away from the testing and sorting of children, toward talent development. "We need to develop a range of talent-challenging curricula," she says. "We don't need more remedial slots, but children need challenges and opportunities to learn in ways best suited to them."

Teachers, too, suffer in this environment. "Teachers are straight-jacketed by this sorting culture of achievement," says Weinstein. "Teachers need the freedom and support to teach children who learn in a variety of ways."

"Teachers are being pressured to do things that will not ultimately help students," she adds. "When students fail, there will be more tracking, special education placements, retention and mandated summer school - methods that the research evidence has suggested are not helpful."

Annual testing is also costly, and she believes this money could be much better spent. "It's taking dollars away from improving the quality of teaching for a diverse population of students, and it is holding children captive to test scores," she says.

She says pressure is increasing to teach to the test and to exempt children from testing to keep youngsters who do not test as well from pulling down class and school averages. Schools with low averages are punished by receiving fewer funds, says Weinstein, and ultimately are threatened with closure.

Weinstein gives concrete examples of schools and teachers who are bucking the trend of teaching to the test with good results. She describes "Mrs. Kaye," a teacher who has developed such methods, including working with the whole class on a subject and having children group and regroup to learn from all of the students in the classroom.

"Mrs. Kaye operates on the assumption that ability is malleable, and she tries to build lessons that capitalize on the variety of abilities of her students so that everyone can shine, all the while struggling to overcome obstacles in learning," Weinstein says. "And she doesn't expect a normal curve in performance. Mrs. Kaye compares a child's effort to the work he or she has done before, not to his or her classmates."

Schools also need different organizational structures to give teachers more tools, Weinstein believes. "Teaching can be a very lonely job," she says. "A school environment where teachers can collaborate and learn from each other is critical for success." In her book, she cites schools where teachers work together during planning periods to meet with colleagues to learn about new research and bring up problems.

"Teachers have tremendous knowledge, but rarely can share it," Weinstein says. "It's exciting when a teacher can be a student as well."

In Weinstein's book is an example of a private school where a very different model of education is used - one that focuses on developing rather than assessing talent. At the "Landmark School," children often work in teams and are interdependent. The school's philosophy is that all children have talent, albeit in diverse ways. Learning takes place both within and outside the classroom as all students take leadership roles in meaningful activities such as participation in a journal, newspaper, school jobs, a bank and bookstore.

But private schools are not the only places different methods are used to help children learn. Weinstein has collaborated with a public high school in California to apply her research findings to raise expectations for students in more productive ways. The results were gratifying to teachers, students and their families, and students' achievement rose, along with their own personal expectations.

While Weinstein agrees that proficiency in subject matter is important, "we do not yet have the curricula, instructional strategies and tests in place to match that standard," she says. But more importantly, she says, educational reform needs to move beyond subject matter knowledge alone, toward the development of a broader array of abilities, including social and emotional competencies, as well as creativity.

"We need to be concerned about motivating students to learn, not simply to perform on tests," she says. "Multiple areas of competency must be taken into account when a child is being evaluated. In order to create an 'enabling' culture, we need to widen, not narrow, the choice and leadership of children and teachers in educational reform.

"We need to challenge and support students and teachers if we truly want a society in which no child is left behind."