One of the biggest casualties in the current K-12 education reform effort — otherwise known as measuring teacher effectiveness through high-stakes testing — is the notion of competition, academic and otherwise. At least, students competing to make themselves better students, better athletes and even better people in the process of matriculating through elementary, middle and high school. Competition suffers when the teaching, motivational, psychological and financial resources necessary to level the K-12 playing field have gone instead to testing companies and psychometricians.
So much has been the emphasis on testing and raising test scores that most in education reform now think competition among students on the K-12 stage is an abomination that must be rooted out, and not part and parcel of the learning and human development process. This is really too bad. For what often makes school fun for children is a healthy dose of competition throughout the process.
To use myself and my ten-year-old son as but two examples of what has occurred in K-12 education reform over the past three and a half decades, it is apparent to most educators how much has changed as a result of the fear of competition and lack of autonomy to motivate students. Testing, of course, was part of my educational experience growing up. From third grade through sixth grade in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools, the school district tested us with the SRA (Science Research Associates, Inc.) exam in reading comprehension and mathematics every spring. At the end of the school year, we’d learn how well or not so well we tested in these areas in terms of grade level.
The Mount Vernon Board of Education used the test for two purposes. One, it was a diagnostic exam, as it would show students with reading and math comprehension skills at, above or below grade level. When I took the SRA in third grade, for example, I read at the 3.9 grade level, or on par as a third marking period third-grader. When I took the fourth grade version of the SRA the following year, I had jumped up to a 7.4 in reading, or the equivalent of a mid-year seventh-grader.
The district used the SRA for a second purpose, though, at least by the end of sixth grade. It was part of a package that determined what academic track a student would take as they moved on to middle school. In my case, my straight A’s and my SRA scores (which put me at the 12th grade level in reading comprehension and 11th grade level in math) put me in the gifted-track magnet program called Humanities in 1981. For some of my elementary school classmates, it meant general education classes, or, in a couple of cases, remedial or special education classes.
Ability tracking through an examination and grades over four years has its own sinister flaws in terms of race and class — it has tended to disadvantage Black students, especially poor Black kids. But it at least wasn’t the constant mantra of testing that millions like my ten-year-old son has faced since he began kindergarten in August 2008. For nearly every year, my son has taken a school-level, county-district level, or state-level exam in Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools, including MAP-M and MAP-R, TerraNova and the MSA assessments. What’s more, teachers have administered practice versions of these exams (including unit guides and what they call formatives) about once every six weeks during the school year since my son began second grade.
The constant testing would be meaningful if teachers could get together and decide at the classroom level how best to address students’ needs in areas like reading comprehension and mathematics. These determinations now are tightly controlled at the state, district and school leadership levels, leaving teachers with little room to use their abilities to, well, teach. Really, motivating students — the most critical tool a teacher has in challenging students to become better learners — has become a secondary tool. Especially since these test scores only count in favor or against individual teachers and individual schools, and not specifically for or against students.
The last piece is a good thing. Most educators now agree that ability grouping or tracking has fostered too much competition for a school district’s resources among students, teachers, administrators and parents. K-12 education reform has leaned so far the other way, though, that teachers have virtually no say in the curriculum from which they teach, even in kindergarten, and have little from which to motivate their students as learners. In fact, teachers and school-level administrators are the only ones with some motivation and sense of competition, as dollars and jobs are at stake every spring as a result of annual testing. This motivation, though, is all about teaching students how to get better test scores, and not about actual learning, development or academic improvement, a poor way to reform K-12 education.
And it is the motivation to learn that sparks the competition necessary for students to improve themselves, to work with each other to become better students. Another student’s success can even encourage other students to work harder, to make themselves better academically, athletically or even socially. In the current K-12-as-laboratory-experiment-environment, this theme of motivation and healthy competition leading to student success is not only missing. For reformers, it’s been deliberately omitted, as if poor kids and students of color in urban environments don’t need motivation and competition to become better students and people.