From kindergarten to senior high school, teachers have been forced to narrow their teaching to address mandated assessments. The school day had been reduced to: introduction to the tests, preparation for the tests, and taking mock tests. Art, music, and other learning activities not on the assessments have been abandoned or shortchanged.
Many teachers have to defend every lesson they teach. Fearful that their school will face penalties if too few students “make proficiency,” administrators lean on teachers to overteach only what is on the state standards. —Or more narrowly, teach just those items on the state standards that are marked for assessment. If a lesson is not on the tested standards, teachers are being pressed to abandon it. And many lessons that have been central to American education are fading away.
What is being lost because it is not on the test?
Honesty. Teachers are in constant interaction, helping students do honest work. Under NCLB, the nationwide pressure for high scores has compromised students and teachers and administrators into doing anything to make “annual yearly progress” (AYP). Dishonesty in the classroom has never been higher.
Excitement for learning. The joy of expressing art, performing music, understanding how the body works, setting up an experiment so it produces results, feeling empathy with an author that speaks just to you, and much, much more has been abandoned as school becomes drill work for the test. More-and-more students are dropping out of high school because NCLB drillwork is boring. Classwork should be exciting.
Carry-through to get-the-job done. So many unique lessons in American classrooms engaged students in projects that challenged them. The teacher prodded, coached, and kept them on track until they succeeded at something they did not think they could do. They had a sense of accomplishment and a pride in a job well-done. Today’s assessments reduce coursework to the tedium of working on a chain gang.
Individuality. A traditional American classroom had a wealth of diverse students. Susie was a wonderful oral reader. Fred and Mary were leaders. Albert and Jean always competed to finish the extra credit really-hard math questions. Melissa and Tom played the best in orchestra. Everyone learned to respect others for their unique talents. Under NCLB, the drive to raise class test scores washes out much peer recognition and respect.
Creativity. When the sole focus is math and reading, there is little time for the free-wheeling varied classroom questions and discussion that feed the creative students’ minds. When the only question a student is trained for is “What is the right answer for the test?” there are no creative open-ended questions that prepare students for future Nobel-winning research. Much of the world has a long history of national curricula and testing, and no Nobel Prizes. Our Nobel winners were grown in earlier American classrooms that fed the rich diversity of students with a variety of challenges and a non-standardized curriculum.
And there are many more type of lessons that have been abandoned these last few years. Kindergarten teachers to high school specialists have been forced to “align” their curriculum to the narrow testing that is ultimately dictated by NCLB. When I mention to educationists the many important properties that are not tested, they respond with assertions that “We can test that too!” Creativity, work ethic, honesty, etc.? I cringe to think of adding tests on individuality and sense of accomplishment, and the twisted lessons we would try to drill into students so they scored high on those tests too!
Real American education is a complex art that is far too rich to be reduced to the simple-minded tests that are currently destroying our schools, shortchanging our students, and driving many of our best teachers from the classrooms.
Fortunately, across the country, we are beginning to hear criticism of the NCLB test-culture: “Not everything that is counted, counts. And not everything that counts, is counted.”
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia, KS.