Things I Know 234 of 365: Testing is killing the curriculum

Too many professors feel right at home talking at students instead of fostering an engaging and interactive learning environment. Students are expected to sit there, take notes, and find some way to stay awake. The suck-it-up-and-endure-a-mind-numbing-lecture mindset is so ingrained in college, schools even assign room names like “Lecture Hall 4”.

– Liz Dwyer

A few months ago, a friend raised an argument to me, “We’re not teaching to the test.”

It was the first time in a while I’d heard someone make this particular case.

The temptation – the overwhelming urge – was to shout, “Of course you are! You are and you have been for years. Mountains of curricular history have been shifted so that exactly what you are doing is teaching to the test.”

Instead, I asked, “I see, then you’re teaching away from it, are you?”

According to Wayne Au of California State University, Fullerton, my initial response would have been the correct one.

In 2007, Au compared 49 studies of how standardized testing had shaped curriculum across 10 different states. He wanted to know what the trends were across studies of high-stakes testing and curricula.

According to Au, “The primary effect of high-stakes testing is that curricular content is narrowed to tested subjects, subject area knowledge is fragmented into test-related pieces, and teachers increase the use of teacher-centered pedagogies.”

Well, there you have it.

But Au found more.

As he began coding the data of his metasynthesis, he found the results breaking down into three categories:

  • subject matter content alignment/contraction vs. subject matter content alignment/expansion
  • form of knowledge changed/fractured vs. form of knowledge changed/integrated
  • pedagogic change to teacher-centered vs. pedagogic change to student-centered

After Au’s data was coded, he started to look for trends in studies that included two or three of the categories.

Were there trends in shifts toward teacher-centered lessons coupled with curriculum contraction.

He found them.

Most frequently, Au found content contraction coupled with a shift toward teacher-centered pedagogy. Teachers, the studies predominantly found, were contracting what they were teaching and teaching in such a way that they were positioning themselves as the sources and makers of knowledge in their classes.

In considering triplets where three of the coded data sets were present in 28 of the 49 studies, the most frequent trio was contracting curriculum, fragmented knowledge and teacher-centered pedagogy.

That sound you hear is the rolling over of John Dewey and Paolo Freiere in their graves.

Au’s reports that some curricula were actually expanding in connection to high-stakes testing was initially heartening. This was short-lived as he wrote that such expansion was often social studies teachers expanding their curriculum to take on those skills tested by English language arts assessments.

Au concludes his report claiming such constrictions were the end goal of policymakers from the outset.

The intent wasn’t to move the mountain. The intent was to chip away, re-shape and grind down the mountain of human knowledge so that students can carry around the pebbles of the human experience as mementos of what once was.

“Given the central findings of this study, however, a crucial

question is raised,” writes Au, “Are test-driven curriculum and teacher-centered instruction good or bad for teachers, students, schools, communities, and education in general?”

One thought on “Things I Know 234 of 365: Testing is killing the curriculum

  1. In a rhizomatic classroom/learning space, curriculum is complicated conversation with at least 50 to 70% of it empty, so that it can be composed while learning by the learners. In contrast what you so aptly describe here is that the test informed curriculum undermines the desire to learn. The narrow, constricted curriculum offers little in the way of wandering.A great post Zac. thanks.

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