In testing-dominated system, real learning comes outside the classroom

It's Teacher Appreciation Week, the standardized testing season has mostly ended in the public schools this year — and what have we learned? Parents have learned that their first-graders are developing test anxiety. Teachers have learned that they need to tell parents to accept the fact that these high-stakes tests are not going anywhere. But perhaps most importantly, some of us have learned that some of the best kind of learning happens after school, or once the testing demands have passed.

Though some are resigned to this reality, others across the nation are not complacent. Recently, for example, John Tierney described in The Atlantic how there is a growing wave of activism around standing up against the standardized testing movement.


Still, here in Maryland, school days are filled with tight mandates for teachers and students, leaving them with less time to spend on creative, open-ended activities. Frequently, students come home with worksheets, prepping them for skills-based material that will be tested once a year on a test that does little if anything to improve their learning. Instead, these tests seem intended to determine which schools have students from wealthier families with cultural capital who will score high on these tests, as opposed to the opposite. And the cycle continues.

One of those "good" schools happens to be our school, in Baltimore City — Roland Park Elementary/Middle, where one of us is a parent and the other a teacher. Yet still, a lot of the good stuff is happening after school hours. For example, Ms. Flores-Koulish's daughter's fourth-grade team for a club called Destination Imagination (DI) recently competed on the regional and state levels with great success. Their accomplishments qualified them to compete at the Global Tournament, which is being held in Knoxville, Tenn., this month. DI is the world's largest creative thinking and problem-solving competition. They will be competing against schools from all over the world. The club is parent-led and after school, and it is fortunate that we have the capacity and the time for it.


The school's middle school National Academic League (NAL) team recently competed in the final four of the national tournament. NAL is a quiz bowl league that follows "sports like" rules for students to answer trivia questions in math, science, language arts, and social studies as well as popular culture and current events. There are four rounds of stimulating play, and the students learn a lot from it while having a great time. NAL is led by Ms. Lewis and her teacher colleague, with the games running after school and practices held before school two times a week.

Sometimes, creative learning can actually still creep into the curriculum during the school day, and thankfully, we both see that at Roland Park. For example, fourth-graders recently had an art opening at Evergreen Cafe in the city that demonstrated their understanding of the Baltimore City school construction bill that they studied in social studies and art. Importantly, it was "real" curriculum and not simulated for a standardized assessment. Students could eloquently describe the process of legislative change while it was occurring.

In another example, Ms. Lewis' sixth-grade social studies students found the time to analyze the Disney film "Mulan" after studying Ancient China to determine the ways in which Hollywood alters history to tell a seamless tale and profit from it. These same students also held a fundraiser for Native American charities during an event in which they collaboratively shared their knowledge on posters about the real history of Native Americans in the U.S., from the "Trail of Tears" to the boarding schools, which they learned about in language arts and social studies. No doubt there are other examples. Knowledge of this sort cannot be shown in robust ways on a simple Scantron.

At the recent American Educational Research Association meeting in San Francisco, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to a group of educational researchers, saying, "Ultimately, a great education involves much more than teaching children simply to read, write, add and subtract. It includes teaching them to think and write clearly, and to solve problems and work in teams. It includes teaching children to set goals, to persist in tasks, and to help them navigate the world."

Mr. Duncan needs to travel north and witness these qualities and then think about how we can have more of them, during the school day, for all students — not just the privileged. Teachers, parents, and especially children would find public school that much richer. And that would clearly show teachers the appreciation and respect they deserve this week (and every week).

Stephanie A. Flores-Koulish is an associate professor and director of the Curriculum & Instruction Program in the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland. Her email is Janell Lewis is a sixth-grade teacher at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.