Too Much Test-and-Punish

Too Much Test-and-Punish

This spring four hundred school boards in Texas, a third of the school principals in New York, a long list of professors in universities across the state of New York, and a large national group of education, civil rights, parents’ and religious organizations have organized petitions to oppose the torrent of standardized testing our federal government has flooded into public schools.  I am encouraged by this protest.  It’s about time!  Although standardized tests expose achievement gaps, they cannot close them.  Instead, low scoring students need pre-school, enriched classes, and enough teachers and counselors to be able to connect personally with all students.

Standardized testing every year for all children in third through eighth grades and once in high school was folded into the federal education law in 2002 in a version called No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Recent federal policy has only added new uses for testing.  Race to the Top and new waivers from some of the worst consequences of NCLB are being granted by the U.S. Department of Education, but only for states that promise to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ standardized test scores.  Such programs impose punishments like firing principals and teachers and closing or privatizing the lowest scoring schools, too often the schools in the poorest neighborhoods of big cities—all based on standardized test scores.

Children are spending too much time drilling basic skills and practicing test-taking.  Low-scoring children hunker down on tested subjects of basic reading and math at the expense of art, music, literature, and even social studies.  High-stakes graduation tests only increase the dropout rate as those likely to fail are counseled into alternative programs or held back indefinitely in ninth grade to prevent their pulling down the school’s average by taking the tenth-grade test.  Now cheating scandals in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. confirm that administrators, desperate to protect their own jobs, have required teachers to change students’ answers.

Millions of dollars flow to private corporations for test development and grading, and the Department of Education is spending millions on research to evaluate teachers by their students’ scores.  Although such Value Added Metrics have proven unreliable, newspapers in New York and Los Angeles printed the scores for thousands of teachers.

Standardized tests cannot measure imagination, critical thinking, respect for others, compassion and a sense of justice.  Metrics cannot tell us whether teachers help children love learning.  In a recent New York Times commentary Claire Needell Hollander, an English teacher in a New York middle school, regrets that recently she has been forced to cut discussions of literary classics for students whose test scores lag and substitute short non-fiction passages like those that appear in the standardized test.  “We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts,” she writes.  “By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all…  We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.”


The United Church of Christ has more than 5,277 churches throughout the United States.  Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation.  UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.


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