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What's at stake with high stakes testing?

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

Anyone who spends significant time with children can attest to the wonder their constant questioning elicits. Just today I answered these questions put forth by my 3 1/2 year-old: "Where is that bug going?" "Where are the Northern Lights?" "Why can't I put my grilled cheese in the VCR?"

Children have a desire to learn for the pure joy of answering their own questions. I fear that we are drowning their innate inquisitiveness with this federally mandated flood of standardized tests. Learning is anything but standard or predictable or even always measurable. It is idiosyncratic. It is constantly shifting. It is often invisible.

Ample evidence reveals flaws in these tests' ability to truly measure learning. President Bush, touring the country in late February, visited the Vandenberg Elementary School in Michigan and stated, "This is a successful school. This school doesn't quit on kids, and that's why it's heralded for its excellence" (NEA Today, March 2003).

Just a few weeks later, Vandenberg, along with 19 schools the U.S. Department of Education had recently named as Blue Ribbon Exemplary Schools, found itself on the list of low-performing schools based on its test scores. This disparity exemplifies the questionable correlation between test results and a productive, healthy learning environment.

Will weighing a baby more frequently make it gain weight or be healthier? Of course not, but good nutrition will. Will checking my oil more frequently make my car run more efficiently? Of course not, but tuning up the engine will. We trust our doctors and mechanics. Why don't we trust competent teachers to design their own assessments for their specific classrooms and students? If there are incompetent teachers, how does this adversarial atmosphere reform them or attract and retain competent educators? Let's financially and emotionally support teachers and students to create truly effective learning environments.

New Hampshire recently determined that the No Child Left Behind Law will cost nearly $575 per pupil, yet the federal government is providing only $77. Where will the money come from and where else could it be put to better use? $575 could buy each pupil a personal computer or could even provide a personal tutor.

What worries me the most is what definition of education we are giving our young people by obsessing over scores and transcripts. Of course, schools should produce skilled, reliable employees. Of course, I want my students to be competent readers, thinkers and writers, but I want more than that for them. Ethereal qualities such as curiosity, empathy, and passion are devalued because they are impossible to measure on a bubble test or to show on a grade printout. Many of my students judge their entire self worth by their GPA or SAT scores. Many volunteer or join activities solely because they are told it will look good on their college applications. I constantly tell them that they are more than a number, but society overpowers my voice.

We are teaching our young people that education is solely utilitarian and pragmatic. Education is no longer about growth and curiosity; it is about preparation. We pay attention in kindergarten to get ready for first grade to get ready for middle school to get ready for high school to get ready for college to get ready for graduate school to get ready for a job to get ready for retirement. When do we start living? When do we read a powerful book because of what it does to us, not what we can do with it on a test?

I may find my son's questions exhausting, but I also marvel at his unbridled curiosity. I wonder if in the future I will yearn for these days when no system was telling my toddler how to think and what was worth thinking. I know I will long for these days when the report I crave each day from his teachers is whether or not he is joyful and involved, not what his grade is. As Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori program, said, "One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child." Let's put our schools to that test.

Ali McKenna teaches at Juneau-Douglas High School.



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