Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Left behind at society’s peril

The utter lunacy of No Child Left Behind was made plain to me this past week when I served as proctor for a local Ohio Graduation Testing (OGT) session, administering “assessments aligned to Ohio’s Academic Content Standards in reading, mathematics, science, social studies and writing that students in high school must take to demonstrate proficiency before graduation from high school” (Ohio Dept. of Education OGT site). I suppose NCLB was well-intentioned, but somewhere between Washington D.C., the statehouse, and the classroom, quality was sacrificed in the name of quantitative data. How many students can we push through school with the right test scores?

For six days (one for each subject test, and a make-up session), I watched students from ninth grade through well past graduation age struggle through ambiguously written questions. They were all but led by the hand through the process, prepped with review sheets and testing suggestions literally until the moment the bubble sheet answer document were distributed (the ridiculous volume of tests are not even computer administered and scored – how much paper is wasted every session?). Another proctor’s sole responsibility was tracking down students who didn’t show up, cajoling them into making an appearance. Some were testing for the first time; others had been through the routine many times and failed to make a passing score. One very, very sad and frustrated student was testing for the twelfth time, while site teachers scrambled to find a Special Ed diagnosis for her so even more special accommodations could be made to help her pass. How had she, her family, and the system itself allowed things to reach that point?

On Thursday, I was stunned to learn the students were paid $20 for each testing session they attended. What is the lesson when the value of an education takes second place to cold hard cash? I only hope they weren’t paid for repeated sessions; I can see some mercenary yet forward-thinking students calculating just how many times they could run through the tests and still graduate on time. Squeezing every dollar out of an opportunity, no matter how suspect the method, is one lesson society teaches well.

OGT was in its infancy, and a much earlier incarnation, when my children were in school. They both were eligible to test in eighth grade as ‘practice,’ and if they passed, never had to deal with the tests again. And they did pass, with high enough scores to earn state honors at graduation. Unfortunately, they still spent the next four years sitting through repeated review sessions. Don’t ever believe that doesn’t happen; when teacher evaluations are based on student test scores, teaching to the test will continue to be the norm. All that time could have been better spent exploring new material, and in learning something other than how to take a test to meet ever-changing standards. Music, theater and the arts are shunted aside in favor of the ‘important’ subjects and school is a chore rather than a mind-opening experience.

A recent blog post by Kathy Reschini Sweeney on The Lipstick Chronicles shows the failures of NCLB from another perspective. She’s a college teacher, and every year the students she sees are increasing less prepared for real learning. “They get an information dump, take a test, then flush it out and start on the next set of facts. As a result, they do have better vocabularies and I would even venture that they know more things. The problem is that they understand much, much less.”
In the politically motivated drive for control and standardization, we are failing to teach our children critical thinking skills, and how to learn from life rather than a review sheet. This is our loss as well as theirs.

As a lover of learning, I mourn this insanity and the damage NCLB does to the incredible potential of society’s children. Sadly, with the draconian budget cuts at all levels of government and the attacks on the value and credibility of teachers in general, it’s only going to get worse. The United States will continue to fall farther behind in the unstoppable movement toward globalization and it’s our own fault.


  1. Nicely presented and thought provoking. I had no idea. Thanks for your effort.

  2. Kathy Reschini Sweeney4:18 AM

    You know, every time this subject comes up, I learn something even more disturbing. Great blog - maybe if we keep talking about it, eventually someone who can DO something about it will pay attention!


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