Standardized testing has sucked the life out of learning. Stop focusing on test scores.

As fall arrives, the virulence of the culture wars keeps battering K-12 classrooms and obscuring a more fundamental sickness in our education system, one I am reminded of as Georgia's Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis makes history with the indictment of a former president.

Her prior high-profile case indicted more than 30 educators, including Atlanta's school district superintendent and many classroom teachers. Willis persuaded a jury to convict 11 for cheating on state standardized tests and artificially inflating results of kids they were supposed to be educating.

I doubt that I was the only person surprised to see people going to prison for this offense. I had always assumed that messing around with standardized tests could lose a person their job, their reputation and perhaps their credential – but not their freedom.

I did not then and do not now question the severity of the offenses. Those teachers and administrators defrauded students – whose honest performance on standardized tests needed to be known to get help. They also defrauded taxpayers who fund the tests, politicians who rely on the results, and the company paid to provide the tests and promise accurate results.

However, I do wonder how much of that case was about justice for the taxpayers, the politicians and the testing industry and how much was actually about justice for those students.

Why does public education prioritize test scores so much?

Such calculations, of course, aren’t the business of prosecutors. Their job is to follow the law and the evidence.

What about the rest of us, especially everyone responsible for helping disadvantaged kids – like those whose test answers were callously corrected – to transcend their circumstance and forge a future?

In 2013, Georgia's Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis indicted more than 30 educators in a standardized testing cheating scandal. Two years later, 11 of them were convicted.
In 2013, Georgia's Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis indicted more than 30 educators in a standardized testing cheating scandal. Two years later, 11 of them were convicted.

If disadvantaged children really mattered, then someone would have investigated the deeds – lawful as they might be – of a public education system prioritizing test scores so much that students are still being defrauded even when the test results are honest and accurate.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with testing our students to see how much they know and how much they can do to gauge whether schools and teachers are preparing them for success. I and, I think, most of my colleagues welcome scrutiny. We are confident that our instruction and guidance are worthy of the honor of being entrusted with other people’s children.

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We also know that if administrators, school board members and other politicians trusted us and adequately supported what we do, we would deliver meaningful results that would be reflected on whatever reasonable mass assessments our students were given.

I am fortunate. For most of my career, I have had just enough support and resources to produce results that keep the people in suits off my back. For too many educators, however, that kind of trust and understanding does not exist.

When standardized testing morphs into tyranny

Instead, far too often, those tests and the scores revealed each year have morphed into a tyranny that conspires to suck the life out of learning.

I don't teach at a 'top' school. But those rankings fail our students.

At a moment in our country when terrifyingly few adults understand democracy and the Constitution, and terrifyingly many adults are under the impression that science is a belief system, we are failing to prepare enough of our children to become engineers and nurses. Test scores are presented to teachers as the primary objective of our work.

I know a theater and art teacher who retired last year and was not replaced. There are no state test scores for theater or art – and her position can be converted to expenditures that might boost the school’s test scores. Now students will no longer have art class or school plays.

I have news for the testing industry and its cult: Those standardized test results, particularly for high school students, are dubious. Take it from my experience as a high school teacher for three decades, by the ninth or 10th grade, kids have mostly figured out that the results of these tests will have no impact on them. In fact, the smarter the kid, the sharper their critical reasoning, the more likely they are to have long ago made this calculation.

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Educators are left to plead with them for their best effort. In that regard, such standardized tests are just as likely a measure of how much a student likes and respects their school and teachers as it is an assessment of their skills and knowledge. Often, too, it is mostly an indicator of their mood the day the test is administered.

One year, my principal interrogated me about the test results of students in my class: What had I done to get student A from basic to proficient or student B from proficient to advanced? What had I failed to do to allow student C to slip from advanced to proficient?

I did not know what to tell her. I had, as I always have, done my best to challenge students, encourage and cajole, make learning fun and joyful and urgent and astonishing. I could recount some of the days when things didn’t go well and other days when progress was palpable.

I ended up asking student C why she thought her test scores had fallen off from the previous year. She told me, without hesitation, that those tests were administered just two days after one of her cousins had died by suicide. She hadn’t even planned on being at school on the day of the test, but her mother made her go.

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Most of the effective and dedicated teachers I know are self-reflective and self-critical; we are always seeking ways to do more for our students. We know far better than the testing industry – which provides a one-day snapshot – which students we are reaching and which we are not. We know better than any digits can diagnose what are our students' strengths and weaknesses.

The amount of time wasted dumping data on us and asking us to inform our instruction from it is at best annoying; at worst it is destructive to the very students we are supposed to serve.

Allocating resources for the sake of raising test scores – often at the expense of student learning and excitement and joy – is tragic and should be criminal.

Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992.
Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992.

Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” and his new novel, "Light Man." Follow him on X, formerly Twitter: @LarryStrauss

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Schools' obsession with standardized testing is ruining education