BOOK EXCERPT: From the Introduction of “Teaching Without Testing” on the Importance of Biographic Literacy Profiles

Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning by Denny Taylor, edited by Bobbie Kabuto, is the third book in Garn Press Women Scholars Series. Now available on AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBound, and Waterstones ($13.95).

Book: Teaching Without Testing
Author: Denny Taylor
Editor: Bobbie Kabuto
Garn Press (174 pp.)
Paperback $13.95 | Purchase: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Waterstones
ISBN: 978-1-942146-56-8

From the Introduction of “Teaching Without Testing” on the Importance of Biographic Literacy Profiles

By Bobbie Kabuto

In his early writings, Walter Benjamin, a writer of literary and cultural analysis, wrote “We are living at a time when it is impossible to open a newspaper without running into the word ‘school,’ at a time when the words ‘coeducation,’ ‘boarding school,’ ‘child,’ and ‘art’ are in the air” (p. 26). While written sometime between 1910 and 1917, this critique certainly has not changed much. Today, newspapers such as the New York Times dedicate entire sections to education and words such as “charter schools” replace “boarding schools” and “Common Core State Standards” replace “art.”  Education is a political enterprise, and more recently, an overtly commercial one. This point has been consistently reified through the political endeavor to privatize public education through the evaluation system of both students and teachers.

Established through No Child Left Behind in 2001 and exacerbated with Race to the Top in 2009, standardized testing has been deemed the key instrument in determining educational accountability. Through federal regulations, assessing students and evaluating teacher effectiveness are about building data systems and adopting standards in the form of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Researchers have painstakingly demonstrated how the movement towards national standards and assessment data systems create databanks of student and teacher evaluation data.  These databanks connect to and directly benefit special interest groups and business companies, who profit from the use and development of national standardized tests for K-12 public school students across the nation (Cody, 2014; Spring, 2015; Strauss, 2005).

The direct result is the overemphasis on testing, and students in the United States are tested more than students in any other developed nation. Grassroots resistance, however, continues to grow in the form of Opt-Out movements nationwide. Opt-out movements evolved as the implementation and adaption of the CCSS connected to assessment and evaluation systems gained ground across the United States. States began to scramble to find ways not only to develop curriculum around the CCSS, but also to assess students on whether they met the new standards and evaluate teachers on their effectiveness in teaching them. Parents, community organizers, and educational researchers raised concerns over the assessment and evaluation of their children, the time taken away from classroom instruction as children sat for test after test, and the true purpose of the tests. They questioned as to how the tests could help improve instruction for their children when they were evaluated in the spring and the results were provided months later in the fall, when their children had new teachers and new classes.

The Opt-Out movement was born from the concerns of these stakeholders, who have direct vested interests in their children’s mental and educational well-being. Opposing the marketization of education and the over testing of children solidified the strength of the movement. Parents, community organizers, and researchers argue that children are not data points, and learning cannot be standardized if we are make education an equitable enterprise.

Public education entered a new phase of legislation with the Every Child Succeeds Act, which, in 2016, was signed as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The act makes small steps in recognizing the overemphasis on testing. The new act requires states that receive federal grant money to audit their assessment system (Sect. 1202). States must report timelines for the release of the assessment data and the amount of time teachers spend on assessment preparation and administration. There are also provisions that allow states to allocate small sub-grants to local schools to hire instructional coaches outside or within the school to support teachers in the development and implementation of classroom-based assessments and developing instruction. The most notable section of the act is Section 1204, which proposes the implementation of “innovative assessments” that include competency-based assessments, instructionally embedded assessments, interim assessments, cumulative assessments, or performance-based assessments. While on the surface this new legislation appears to tackle the increased level of testing in schools, it is still a far cry from amending the woes that testing and commercialization have placed on public education.

It is within this context that I introduce Teaching Without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning by Denny Taylor. Originally published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as a special edition of English Education (Taylor, 1990), and later as a chapter in her book  From a Child’s Point of View (Taylor, 1993), Teaching Without Testing illustrates how we can assess children in meaningful ways that do not depend on testing. The second book in the Women’s Scholars Series, Teaching Without Testing is as relevant today as it was in 1993 through the revisiting of Taylor’s Biographic Literacy Profile Project. Taylor wrote, “We are expected to be accountable, and accountability is built into the system. We use standardized tests to make sure that teachers teach and children learn” (this volume, p. 76). She questions the connection between standardized testing and teacher evaluation by asking, “How does this contingency affect teaching and learning? What pressures does such policy put on teachers?  How does it affect opportunities for them to teach and children to learn?” (p. 76).

Taylor challenges the scientific assumptions of standardized testing in developing effective instruction to meet the literate lives of all students in the classroom. Arguing that standardized tests promote an “objective reality” and reductionism, Taylor contends that “our interpretations of language (and life) cannot be reduced to a series of competing logical structures or linear stage-theories” (p. 89). The Biographic Literacy Profiles Project highlights how teachers can base their instruction on observations of children and what can happen when “teachers and administrators try to view teaching, learning, and schooling from the perspective of the learner” (p. 21).

Biographic Literacy Profiles provide powerful portraits of children from an advocacy perspective, a perspective oftentimes lost in the standardization of teaching and learning but which needs to be reclaimed by students and their families.

About Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning -COMING SOON MARCH 30, 2017

Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning by Denny Taylor, edited by Bobbie Kabuto, is the second book in the Garn Press’ Women Scholars Series. This book revisits Taylor’s seminal and influential work based on her Biographic Literacy Profiles Project. Teaching without Testing: Assessing the Complexity of Children’s Literacy Learning is a timely book that challenges the scientific assumptions of standardized testing in developing effective instruction to meet the literate lives of all students.  

Through detailed observations of student learning, Taylor encourages readers to consider alternative ways of assessing children’s reading and writing based on observable literacy behaviors. Supporting a humanistic perspective to the education of children, Taylor argues that standardized and diagnostic methods of assessment and teaching, based on test-driven, cooperate-led accountability practices, have detrimental affects on children and result in the de-professionalization of teachers.


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