Over the seventeen years of my life, I have spent thirteen of them in school, and as my senior year is coming to a close, I can’t help but to look back on my experience—especially my last four years at a public high school. Through this experience, I have become dissatisfied with the public education system in America. My distaste and distrust was growing, and after my first semester of senior year and watching many TED talks over winter break, I began to believe that a fundamental change is necessary in order for schools to prepare the leaders of tomorrow. I’m afraid the reliance on standardized tests has left higher achieving students behind, squashed the curiosity of my classmates, and has left many students unprepared for the journeys that they are going to embark on after they exit their schools’ doors. This issue is not just for students nor for parents or teachers; it is an issue that should be present in everyone’s minds.
In third grade, I asked a lot of questions—there was always something “more” that I wanted to know. Many of my questions, however, did not conform to the Standards of Learning (SOLs) which are Virginia’s standardized tests, so many an afternoon, my teacher would send me home with a list of the questions I asked, and a note asking my mother to help me Google the questions in search for the answers. When asked why my teacher couldn’t answer my questions, the response was simple: they did not conform to the standardized tests my class was required to take at the end of the year. This was not only a disservice to me, but also to my peers, as we were taught that questions aren’t welcomed. Rather, we were taught that a sixty-question multiple-choice (or better said, multiple-guess) test in which all answers were learned by rote and taken at the end of the year was more important than our own personal growth. It was as if nothing we learned mattered, except to enhance our performance on that test. Although I did not realize it when I was eight, the repercussions of my deflected questions have stuck with me.
In high school, many would expect that this would change—student about to enter the “real world” ought to know that the answer will no longer be in front of them with only three other clear cut options to choose from. Some teachers invite questioning, while others attempt to suppress it. Not only is it curiosity that standardized tests kill, but learning environments as well. Many of my friends are in a thirty-seven person AP Calculus class, because the school would rather have two more twenty person Algebra II classes, because it is a required class by the state of Virginia. There are barely enough desks and it is impossible for teachers to captivate students’ attention, cater to all their learning styles, and answer all their questions. My school is trying to help its students, yet it doesn’t realize it leaves the highest achieving ones behind. In every hallway there is a flag that reads “Keep Calm and Pass Your SOLs,” but what about APs? APs are more strenuous, much longer, extremely difficult, and are considered equivalent to college classes, and yet the school system doesn’t give nearly as much prevalence to them. Students must rely on their families or their own income to cover the cost of the tests. While my peers who pass their SOLs receive an ice cream social, my peers who pass their AP exams receive a “good job” and maybe a pat on the back. What kind of message does this send to the highest achievers? It tells them that their success doesn’t matter because their scores won’t get the school accredited, nor increase state funding. There is so much potential that school systems disregard to focus on standardized tests.
And with the reliance on standardized tests, No Child Left Behind’s implementation in 2001 has since lowered the standards for students, allowing more students to continue in their education that aren’t ready. Although President Obama’s administration has offered states flexibility with this law, standards are still lower for students, and when raised, they reach high out of the performance zone for low performing to mid-performance students. The College Board, a non-profit testing organization reported that only 43 percent of college-bound seniors met their college ready standards, meaning more college students have to take remedial courses. If a student must take remedial courses, are they ready to make the step up to college? Or should they stay an extra year in high school? No Child Left Behind pushes school systems to send unprepared students into the world or to face punishment. Teacher also face scrutiny if their students do not pass the state prescribed standardized tests – penalized with reduced salaries or losing their jobs. These consequences make the passage of standardized tests the goal, instead of student growth and success.
But how is this problem solved? The first step is shrinking the amount of material covered in one class. There is no way to teach all of history from 1500 to 2014 in 36 weeks—schools must focus on the major lessons, not “who signed what when”. Math is necessary, but do students really need to know how to multiply matrices? If the amount of material is cut in half, teachers can go more into depth instead of just scratching the surface. When students have this knowledge, they are better equipped to make decisions about tomorrow. Benchmarks are necessary, but it is time to move away from a field that is dominated by multiple-choice tests. Students need to be able to communicate their own ideas and thoughts through their writing, not by choosing one letter out of four.
For while the pencil may scratch one of four little circles on a ScantronTM, so much untapped potential is lost between the bubbled dots. Schools should foster a learning environment through an open dialogue with teachers, not through a one-way flow of answer sheets gobbled up by the reading machine at the edge of the teachers’ lounge.
Klein, Joel I. “U.S. Education Reform and National Security.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Meador, Derrick. “What you Need to Know About Standardized Testing.” About.com Teaching. About.com, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2014
“Reforming No Child Left Behind.” The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014