Saturday, August 6, 2011

Leaving 'Em in the Dust

As we encroach upon a new school year, districts, schools, and teachers are gearing up to dive back into the remaining debris of our disintegrating educational system, namely the No Child Left Behind policy, George W. Bush's brain child. Copies of workbook pages and practice tests are running hot off the presses, Number 2 pencils are being freshly sharpened, and teachers take another swig off the flask before entering the prison their classrooms have become, devoid of independent thought, creative teaching styles, and fun. A backwards policy that has left students burned out, teachers exhausted, and both dreading going to school every day, No Child Left Behind practically guarantees the failure of our children, and the rippling effects of standardized test obsession are destroying any hope our future may have.

Standardized tests are, at their core, an assessment of performance to determine the level of achievement each grade, school, and district can obtain, and the effectiveness of current teaching practices as they are. When I was in school, these tests were exactly that. The school year went on as it always did, we engaged in fun activities, we had projects and experiments, and we had the leisure of additional subjects such as music and art. Preparation for the annual standardized tests took all of two weeks out of the year, mostly with the focus placed on attendance for the tests. We completed the tests, usually in a week or two, then went on with our regularly scheduled curriculum.

Today, standardized tests have become less of an assessment tool and more of a formal exam that needs to be practiced for, studied for, and requiring extensive preparation with more time and efforts dedicated to these than most students probably dedicate to their SATs. In the stead of the fun, creative, active learning environments teachers had hoped to build, monotonous endless work pages are replacing most class time, boring students and reducing any chances of academic retention. But why is the drive to do well on these tests so high?

It's a given that the school, district, and state who have the best test scores gain national recognition for being just that, the best. The accolades one can obtain from having such high performance marks can be motivating enough, but let's be real here, it's all about the money. Those who receive the highest scores get the most money from the federal government, which filters down through the aforementioned branches into the schools, utilizing money as a motivational factor, a policy that ends up being more ironic than intelligent.

Most people think if one waves money in the face of superintendents, principals, and teachers, they will work harder and produce better scores; however what they fail to see is that low test scores are the result of a multitude of factors, most of which stem from a lack of money in the system. Classroom sizes are too large, school supplies such as desks, updated text books, and advancing educational technologies are missing in action, and lower socio-economic area schools pay less which brings in lower qualified teachers. So why does it make more sense to give money to schools who do better when one of the main reasons they do better is because they have more money to provide the learning environment children need to do well on the tests to begin with? Schools with lower scores should be carefully examined and it should be determined whether or not lack of funding was a direct cause of low scores, then money should be distributed as necessity dictates.

As the various facets of these systems become more and more obsessed with the green, the heat is turned up and flares down the line like a burning fuse with the teachers holding the dynamite. Ultimately, if scores are not up to par, principals and superintendents have decided, it is a direct reflection of the performance of the teacher, which can lead to a pink slip and a nice field trip to the unemployment office. Now, in spite of the glaring examples already provided regarding lack of funds and an overly-structured classroom environment that allows for little actual teaching, additional fault can and should be shouldered by the demographic of the classroom. The best example I can provide is a friend of my mother's, a first grade teacher who had 20 students: 7 of whom were recommended to repeat kindergarten but whose parents pushed them through, 5 of whom could not fluently speak English. Twelve students who really had no business being in this particular class held the fate of this teacher's career in their hands. And, faced with such a harsh reality, teachers became desperate.

In early July, it was revealed that Atlanta public schools had engaged in a city-wide scandal producing fraudulent test scores during the 2009 test period in order to receive the public notoriety and money higher scores would bring. Eighty-two educators admitted to various forms of cheating, including altering their students' test answers. Another 178 educators pleaded the Fifth Amendment, and additionally, 38 principals were charged with involvement. While many will tsk and shake their heads at the city, as we all should, we have to take into account the ridiculousness of this, the level of desperation these people must be feeling to take part not only in cheating on exams, but at such an incredibly large scale. Some driven by greed, others driven by the greedy and the desire to keep their jobs in this crumbling economy, all robbing their students and setting a poor example, to say the least.

So, with limited money where it needs to be, teachers facing undeserved punishments, and moderated teaching methodology that actually hinders learning and productivity, these standardized tests are ruining our education system. The long term effects are already being felt as high school graduates are barely passing exit exams, and the standard of education is lowered so students can move on, whether or not they're ready. This in turn will lower the standard for college entrance and then work standards of quality as well. So in short, we're crashing and burning. While the Obama Administration is set to revise the policy, change is slow, how many more failed academic years will it take before someone has the cajones to repeal this destructive policy? And how many more children will have to suffer in the meantime?

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