Editorial: Don't teach to the test

New federal mandates ignore music, art, social studies and critical-thinking skills.
By Register Editorial Board

It's all about the test now.

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, means school districts across the nation must use standardized tests to measure whether students are making enough progress. It is the main way the federal government will hold them accountable.

Iowa is using the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) for younger children and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED) in high school to comply with the federal mandate - although the state's choice of tests is still awaiting federal approval.

That raises the concern that teachers will feel pressured to "teach to the tests." Who wouldn't? Their schools eventually will be labeled as needing improvement, or failing, if test scores don't steadily improve. The federal goal is for every student to be proficient, according to the standards set by their state, by the 2013-14 school year.

No Child Left Behind initially emphasizes scores in reading and math. Later, science will be included. But what about writing, social studies, history, music, art and other subjects that are part of a well-rounded education?

Tester is worried

That's what worries David Frisbie, director of the Iowa Testing Programs in Iowa City. The University of Iowa organization develops the ITBS and ITED, which are used in every state. For third- through sixth-graders, the tests cover basic subjects: vocabulary, reading comprehension, sources of information, math, social studies and science. The primary purpose of the tests has been to identify strengths and weaknesses of individual students.

Until now. Now, entire school buildings will be held up to public scrutiny, largely on the basis of the test scores in math and reading.

"We have never felt we measured all the important things that kids should learn," said Frisbie, who is also a U of I professor specializing in educational measurements. While the tests are valuable measures of basic skills, they should not drive a school district's whole vision for education, he said.

"Although we do a good job of measuring what we measure, there are aspects of the curriculum that we don't touch: the writing, the arts and so on," Frisbie said. "Even within social studies and science, we may not measure all that a school regards as important."

Room for local vision?

This raises the question of whether a school district can still pursue its own vision for education with the federal government dictating, rule by rule, what must be done.

There is determination in at least some Iowa school districts to do just that - to work the requirements of No Child Left Behind into the bigger local picture. For example, West Des Moines Superintendent Les Omotani said he supports the goals of the act, and expects to spend more time understanding the trends in the test scores, but that won't be the district's only focus.

"We want to make sure we continue to implement our educational programs and services according to our expectations and our philosophy," said Omotani. "We don't want to overemphasize the information we get from a single score. We are trying to ensure that every child gets a high-quality, broad education."

Every district would be wise to follow that philosophy, but it won't be easy. Many are likely to have schools labeled in need of improvement under No Child Left Behind. That's because if any one subgroup in a building - including poor students and students learning to speak English - doesn't make enough progress for two consecutive years, the building is likely to be found out of compliance. So the urge to do nothing but teach to the test will be strong.

Long-term harm

Teaching to the tests won't serve students well in the long run. Obviously, students need to be able to read and work with numbers - although Iowa schools don't need the federal government to tell them how to accomplish that.

But a broad understanding of the world and of how to think critically are every bit as important to turning out good citizens - a point that seems to be completely ignored by the No Child Left Behind Act.