Too much focus on testing limits learning, creativity

At issue | May 23 Herald-Leader article, "Group seeks balance in classrooms; organization says Fayette schools overemphasize standardized tests"

On May 23, a group called Fayette ABC — Fayette Advocates for Balance in the Classroom — presented a petition to the Fayette County school board. This petition, introduced by Erik Myrup, a parent and history professor at the University of Kentucky, expressed concern that schools are teaching to tests, overemphasizing testing at the expense of student creativity and exploration.

Fayette ABC and its supporters make valid points. Though the debate over the merit of testing is not new, it is relevant and needs to be addressed.

In a speech both reasoned and heartfelt, Myrup made the case that testing cannot be the primary evaluation for student learning, that it has put undue pressure on young children and their teachers, and that it is inhibiting the kind of learning that really matters.

Myrup is well-placed to make these arguments; he is the father of four children who attend Fayette County public schools, and he is an award-winning professor, interacting daily with students who are the products of Kentucky public schools.

As Myrup mentioned in his speech, many of our students lack critical reading and analytical skills and often come programmed to memorize the "right answer."

By contrast, knowing how to get to the answer is the skill that is truly valued by universities and the future employers of our students. It is crucial that our schools address Fayette ABC's concerns and, indeed, this debate is being discussed all over the country. On the front page of the June 15 New York Times, two articles covered this problem.

In one article, featuring elementary school districts in California and New Jersey, concerned parents and administrators were cutting back on homework, arguing that students overburdened with homework were not getting time to play and rest, and were not even improving their test scores.

A second article, explaining the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card, reported a poor showing by American students on basic knowledge of American history. Educators interviewed argued that because of No Child Left Behind's emphasis on testing reading and math, teachers have been teaching to those tests and neglecting other subjects.

The anxiety over school testing is understandable; students, parents and the public worry about our students' futures and what it means for America's future. We worry about America's competitiveness, especially with the rise of countries such as China whose test scores consistently call ours into question.

In this economy, those of us in higher education debate the merit of a college degree because studies have shown that our students are unprepared for college, do not necessarily learn as much as we thought they did, and might face unemployment when they graduate.

It is important to understand that Fayette ABC is not against testing altogether but is asking how much testing is necessary, and at what cost to our students?

What we should remember in this context is that there are some qualities of an American education that are worth keeping, and by this I mean the potential to cultivate independent-minded and creative students.

When we worry about the competition from East Asian students, we should be mindful of the fact that those systems envy American schools for allowing independence and creativity.

These are skills that Chinese schools seek to create, and this is the reason that Asian students come to America for college and graduate school, the one product that people are willing to come across the globe to get.

In our quest to raise the quality of American public schools, we should not lose the core values of creativity and independence — which translate to entrepreneurship and leadership — and distinguish American education.

Creativity and independence, Fayette ABC is right to point out, are neither produced nor evaluated by school tests.

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