The Straitjacket of Standardized Tests

A Portland teacher wonders: Where is the standardized test that can measure passion for learning, respect for others, and human empathy?

By Tom McKenna

The Ahavath Achim synagogue is demolished as part of Portland’s urban renewal.

When I first met Sol Shapiro he was in his 80s, living alone in a retirement home. He was the first person my Portland high school history class interviewed for an oral history project about our city’s immigrant community, old South Portland. My students were primarily African American. Sol was Jewish. They were young. He was old. Neither was really excited about the encounter.

We met in Sol’s apartment. He was helpful as the students set up their equipment. After about 20 minutes of uncomfortable introductions, the interview began.

“My name is Sol Shapiro. I am very familiar with old South Portland.” Silence. One that seemed much longer than it actually was. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, Sol began to weep. My students were stunned. They turned off the video camera and tape recorder. Soon Felicia ventured forth and placed her hand on Sol’s shoulder, “It’s OK, Mr. Shapiro, we understand.”

Sol cleared his throat, removed his glasses, and dabbed his tears. “Thank you,” he said as he looked down. “Excuse me, please, I’m very sorry.” He rose from his couch and headed for a back room. My students looked at me with puzzled expressions. “What do we do now?”

We waited. After a few minutes, Sol returned. He reclaimed his seat on the couch and shared artifacts from his life with us, accompanying each with a tale from his past. Students feasted on a steady stream of photographs, letters, religious pieces, and historical documents. Much of what he shared over the next hour never got recorded on tape. Students came to class the next day with a new outlook on interviewing old people and oral history. They wanted more.

Unfortunately, given the demands of current educational reform in Oregon, teachers are finding it difficult to give students the “more” they desire.

Increasingly, teachers feel pressured to prepare students to do well on state-administered, standardized tests. We feel we have to teach to those tests; we have to “cover the content,” because these tests will be the measure of our teaching and our students’ learning.

A well-respected classroom veteran recently told me that “all this standardized test stuff has changed the way I teach.” He wasn’t comfortable with his realization. There seems to be little room any more for the use of oral history, much less time to pursue the kind of in-depth project described above. What happens if my students don’t do well on the tests? What happens to my school in a district that has already “reconstituted” two others for low scores? What happens to my job in a state that recently took away teacher tenure? Those pressures are real, and I do not want to downplay them. I also want to emphasize that those pressures and the reality they reflect are the reasons why using teaching methods like oral history are so important.

Clearly, high stakes, standardized testing, where a single multiple choice test administered out of the context of the classroom is used to ascertain both student learning and teacher effectiveness, affects much more than the way student academic performance is assessed. It also threatens to define the way teachers teach. In a world enriched with difference, the hidden curriculum of much current educational reform is singularity, sameness, and compliance.

For instance, the proposed state assessment in Oregon for social studies is a 45- to 60-question multiple-choice test to be given in the spring of students’ sophomore year. Students will be held accountable for knowing discreet facts in all of the various social studies disciplines, including a survey of post Civil War U.S. history. The test is tied to state-generated standards that make no mention of race, gender, or labor. And it will be the sole indicator of the teaching and learning in my classroom.

What score would I give students on the South Portland project? What would a multiple-choice test tell state legislators about what we all learned? Lives changed. People overcame significant historical barriers that threatened to keep them apart forever. Students were moved to social action. They came to class religiously. They sat in an orthodox synagogue with yarmulkes on their heads and learned about Judaism. They became passionate experts about urban renewal. They uncovered obscure historical documents on Saturday mornings in an Oregon History Center where they did not feel welcome.

Oral history can be a powerful classroom tool. I’m reminded of this each time I think of the South Portland video project and use oral history techniques with students. Out of necessity, students acquire and apply valuable skills in pursuit of learning that matters. They formulate questions for interviews. They work collectively to solve problems that threaten to derail hours of work. Text needs to be written and written well. It’s critiqued, revised, and polished. Discovery leads to questions, and research is needed to find answers to those questions. Research leads to surprise, surprise breeds excitement, excitement spills over into passion, and students find a connection in the classroom they aren’t likely to find in a more traditional setting. I know. I used to teach in a more traditional way.

Students Changed

James never missed history class. Often, he had to sneak in and out of my room to hide from the dean because he rarely attended his other classes. He was our #1 cameraman and interviewer. Jennifer uncovered a quote from a neighborhood meeting, long lost in dusty boxes, that moved her to angry tears. History came alive for her. She wove it into our collective narrative text. The words of a state official resonated when she read his comment about the people who would be moved by urban renewal: “Frankly, we don’t give a damn about the renters.”

The end result of our work was a 30-minute documentary about South Portland and about the urban renewal that destroyed it. We were invited to show the piece at the Portland Art Museum auditorium. I got there early and stood outside on the street trying to help direct my students and their families to a facility where none had ever been, in a part of town where few ever ventured.

About 250 people attended our premiere that night. The students deftly answered questions from the audience and talked extensively about their experience.

Sol Shapiro was among the crowd of 250. Shortly before the show was scheduled to begin, I saw him walking toward me. He had on a plaid sports jacket with contrasting dark-blue tie and trousers. I waved. He waved back with noticeable hesitation. We greeted. “Tom, I didn’t know if you would remember me.”

“Sol, how could I forget?” I replied and grabbed his hand. I tried to hug him, but he pulled away.

“I need to tell you something,” he said. “Before meeting your students, I was doing very little. What did I have to live for? My wife is gone, the community. But those young people reminded me I still had something to offer.” I tried to interject.

“No, listen, I used to be a tailor, as you know, for years,” Sol continued. “I said to myself, “Why not share what I know with others?’ So, I’m now helping out at the local community college in their fashion design program. I came here tonight to see the show and to thank your students.”

We smiled. Sol gestured as if to tip his hat and made his way into the auditorium.

Students, their families, and former residents of South Portland gathered at my home for a reception after the show. Students commandeered my stereo, and their music boomed throughout my home. I went to turn it down. I stopped when I saw what was going on in my living room. Dancing hand in hand around my house were two groups of people who were about as different from each other as I could imagine and who, when I first approached them about getting together, resisted the idea. Young, old, African American, Jewish were joined together in a celebration of each other. They celebrated a new understanding that our project helped them achieve. They embraced the differences that one time kept them apart.

Find me the standardized test that can measure the meaning of that embrace.

Tom McKenna teaches history at a high school in Portland, OR. The names have been changed in this article, which is adapted from a story that originally appeared in The Oregonian.