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Sunday, January 29, 2006

How Standards and Test Prep Shrink the Curriculum

The kids are feeling better and have played hard today, now they are sleeping. I've just come across a piece I originally wrote for an Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) monograph. It is fairly interesting, and, I think, fairly readable. Anyway, it provides a real look at the profound, and, for the most part, undocumented shrinking of the curriculum as a result of standards and accountability.

As a ten-year veteran of the Chicago Public Schools, I have observed the rise of the standards movement. My tenure in the Chicago Public Schools has been spent at one of the largest schools in the city. I have spent this time in the classroom as an English teacher and as an instructional coordinator responsible for professional development in reading, standards based instruction, and test preparation. It is my contention that the standards movement has destroyed rich multicultural curriculum possibilities. While writing this piece, I came across the following definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:

Standard: b. (Originally, standard of commerce.) A commodity, the value of which is treated as invariable, in order that it may serve as a measure of value for all other commodities. (1989)

From this definition it is clear that standards formalize knowledge, and therein endorse specific types of knowledge. This endorsement of specific forms of knowledge is problematic in its creation of an exclusionary hierarchy of knowledge that engenders numerous questions akin to whose standards, whose knowledge? However, it is important to note, that standards by definition curtail inquiry. After all, how can one argue with something that is “invariable”? All of this is troubling, but what is more insidious is how the standards are measured and the effect this has on the school curriculum and day-to-day instruction. What emerges is a triangle of standards, accountability, and test preparation that overpower school-based curriculum and instruction.

Standards are measured through standardized tests. In Illinois, for example, six- sevenths of the accountability mechanism is measured by tests designed by the ACT. These tests are retrofitted to meet the Illinois Learning Standards. Given the high stakes involved in these tests, it is no shock that schools have analyzed test items to clarify how the standards are measured. The logic is straightforward—if a teacher knows how a standard is assessed then they will figure out how to teach to that standard. However, when one examines how the standards are assessed it becomes evident that not all standards are assessed. Now, if standards are a subset of knowledge, and the assessed standards are a subset of that subset, then we have a rarified set of standards that are the only ones that count in the accountability game. If teachers teach to the test, and they do, then the curriculum shrinks, and with it the possibility of rich multicultural education.

In 2004, due to budget constraints, Illinois removed the social science test from its accountability mechanism, and with it many schools walked away from the social science curriculum in favor of test preparation. After all, here was a set of standards that were not being assessed at all by the state. Due, in part to the pressures of accountability, my school purchased a test preparation package from a major corporation. In implementing these materials my school decided to re-design English classes for the ACT English test, mathematics classes for the ACT Mathematics test, science classes for the ACT Science test, and social science classes for the ACT Reading test. The school then decided to use 2 days a week per class to implement the program. In essence, 40 percent of the curriculum has been displaced by test prep. In this system, teachers become delivery conduits for a one-size-fits-all test preparation curriculum. Worse yet, social science teachers forfeit their curriculum in favor of packaged reading skills review and test preparation. Given these circumstances, it is shocking that any young teachers stay in the field. The contracted company promised a “targeted approach” to test preparation that focuses on questions that when mastered will produce an average test score. Essentially, through targeted test preparation we have yet another subset of the standards. Clearly, the real “target” is the ever-vanishing curriculum, and with it any hope of expanding students’ understandings of the diverse world they inhabit.

The standards-accountability-test preparation triangle has vivisected curriculum and instruction. This technocratic Bermuda Triangle over limits students’ exposure to meaningful, diverse curriculums and, in essence, kills any and all forms of meaningful student inquiry, be it multicultural or otherwise. In keeping with the spirit of the Nation at risk document that gave rise to the standards movement, I posit that if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose this triangle on America, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000-(ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. http://

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