When standardized tests results are attached to punitive measures for low-scoring students, their teachers and their schools, these tests (the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAPs, for example) are said to have “high stakes.” These test results have ruled the school for over 10 years.
Opponents of these tests weren’t surprised to find that the rise of high-stakes standardized testing has correlated closely with a sharp rise in the number of diagnosed cases of ADHD.
Many states passed laws in the name of school accountability in the 1980s and 1990s “and within a few years of passage, ADHD diagnoses started going up in those states … especially for kids near the poverty line,” Caroline Miller wrote recently in a Salon.com review of the book “The ADHD Explosion” by Steven Hinshaw and Richard Scheffler. National testing law followed in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the national spike of diagnosed cases mirrored the experience of those early states.
Medicating children diagnosed with ADHD improves their “performance” in school and raises test scores. These findings put into sharp relief the extent to which we have ignored the well-being of children in our quest for data.
The school administrators I encounter as a parent and school board member deny the toxicity of these tests. Standardized testing, they tell us, is one essential component of the great education they strive to give our kids. We trust their ability to do the hard job of running our school districts. Their concern seems genuine. The deeply flawed logic of testing has insinuated itself into their values and priorities.
A school administrator might not admit to encouraging teachers to teach to the test. But when a school he or she runs is placed on a state “watch list” for poor standardized test performance, the school will jump through the series of hoops required of it to show due diligence toward “improvement.” Someone who has bought into the testing system regards these changes as simply good education.
Administrators might not even realize that these educational priorities have been molded and manipulated to find value in dry, tasteless and fragmented learning tasks.
Humans are confident in units of measurement. An inch is an inch; we can measure it on a ruler and all agree to its length. So we create a unit of learning: a question answered correctly. It’s not hard to build large structures out of these units. Once they’re in place, it’s tempting to think of them as scientific. Before long, people accept them as if they were laws of nature.
Think about what it means to measure knowledge and ability. We have taken the stark display of a piece of disconnected knowledge and elevated it to the status of the inch and the pound. Yet it bears no relationship to the conditions in which the knowledge being tested would be authentically used.
We all find pleasure and satisfaction in doing work that is meaningful to us. This natural human desire has been buried under the requirement that students exhibit measurable knowledge.
What we regard as normal is a system of learning that can only operate when we give students rewards that are unrelated to what they’re supposedly learning: their names appearing on a wall of honor, a merit trip to a video arcade or privileges that set them above their peers.
These extrinsic motivators don’t work for long, if they work at all. Kids want to understand why they need to know this stuff. But when that question goes unanswered long enough, kids stop asking it, and adults interpret the resulting alienation as an unwillingness to learn.
Think of the phrase “get kids motivated.” What that process involves is to first deny them the learning that they want, and “get them motivated” to perform tasks that are disconnected from their identities or interests. This de-motivation starts when we tell kids it’s time to stop playing and come inside.
Now the rise of ADHD diagnoses in our kids begins to make sense.
We do not have to accept the idea that we need to push kids through identical, context-free learning tasks or they won’t succeed and be able to have the comfortable, happy lives we dream of for them.
We know that when pressure is brought to bear on a system that can’t handle it, something blows. Something breaks. It’s our kids. And that is not acceptable.
Lisa Cooley is an education activist and an RSU 3 school board member from Jackson. She blogs at http://mindsofkids.blogspot.com. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.