Opinion Columns & Blogs

Promote learning over mandated testing

George Bridges, president of The Evergreen State College
George Bridges, president of The Evergreen State College

It’s early July. While children are enjoying their summer break, primary and secondary schools are scrambling to recruit teachers for their fall classrooms. They’re scrambling due to a nationwide shortage of qualified teachers that’s at near-crisis levels. Seventy-five percent of high schools and 80 percent of middle schools in our state are having trouble finding people who meet state and national teaching standards.

The number of college students pursuing a teaching degree has dropped greatly in recent years, forcing other states to resort to unusual hiring practices. For example, both Georgia and Utah are hiring people with a bachelor’s degree who can pass a background check and subject area test, no teaching credential required.

So, what’s going on? Has teaching our children become such a bad gig that no one wants the job? Is it the low salaries? Is it the achievement gap, learning gap and opportunity gap we see in many classrooms? While these play a role, I believe a deterrent is the emphasis we place on mandated testing.

As an educator now for more than 30 years, I know what attracted me to this career and what continues to make teaching a joy: watching students discover and explore ideas, expand their imagination, collaborate with one another, interact constructively, and develop their own sense of what it means to be socially responsible.

Testing, and teaching to the test, has never been an aspect of teaching I enjoyed or valued. Frankly, mandatory testing stifles creative thinking and thwarts the lasting learning I sought for my students. Although tests mandated for K-12 schools do provide a snapshot of a student’s knowledge when tests are taken, most students don’t retain this knowledge. If you have doubts about this fact, ask any parent if their kids can recall in August what they learned during the previous school year. Further, many teachers tell me that our commitment to mandatory testing robs them and their students of collaborative learning, the chance to develop skills in problem solving, and overall autonomy. My colleague, Patrick Naughton, is the director of Evergreen’s teacher education programs and says that teachers are energized by the ability to make decisions in their classrooms about what is best for their students, and when teachers begin to perceive their decisions are no longer respected, their incentive to serve their students begins to weaken.

In fall 2015, I arrived at The Evergreen State College and — for the first time in my career — I discovered how granting teachers freedom and autonomy in teaching fosters the kinds of communal or cooperative learning that inspire the students and the teachers. In discussing Evergreen’s approach, a faculty member recently remarked that “Here, you are as free as you can possibly be as a teacher.” Although most other liberal arts colleges emphasize learning as a communal pursuit, at Evergreen it’s emphasized exponentially through team-taught, multidisciplinary programs (instead of individual classes), written evaluations (instead of letter grades), and a culture in which faculty and students connect and create together. The focus is on actual learning and development rather than testing-based performance.

Motivated students also seem to contribute to teacher happiness. In 2012, the Journal of Educational Psychology published a study that found teachers with motivated students reported less stress and higher levels of satisfaction and effectiveness. At Evergreen, we find that self-motivated students are drawn to our campus because the college allows students to channel their interests into a customized “area of emphasis” pulling from more than 60 subject areas that culminate in a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree. They can design their degree.

It might be time to resurrect the innovative spirit that led to the founding of The Evergreen State College in 1967, infusing it in our primary and secondary schools.

What will inspire more students to become teachers and our students to be more inspired learners? We should begin by rethinking our schools as incubators of collaborative and creative work, places where students develop effective speaking, writing and analytical abilities, settings with curricula that foster independent and critical thinking, and environments in which students learn by applying knowledge rather than simply acquiring it.

George S. Bridges is the president of The Evergreen State College.