American education: Children Left Behind

Prema Polit: Suspicion of standardized tests & other thoughts...
Long ago, as a third-grader at an Oakland public school, I was unhappily plodding through a state standardized test when I came upon a question that left me puzzling: "Where does honey come from?" Included in the answer choices were "Bees" and "Flowers." I felt desperately frustrated. Which one was it? I read the question over and over again, trying to detect some nuance that I had missed before. I even began to doubt my knowledge of honey (which at least was comprehensive enough to know that bees make honey from stuff they get from flowers). And that was when my trusting third-grade heart lost faith in standardized tests.

Apparently Bush and Co. never thought that deeply about the production of honey, or they wouldn't be banking on the power of standardized tests to cure the United States' educational ills. As usual in the Bush administration, No Child Left Behind is more a marketing ploy than a substantive attempt to solve the problem at hand. It sounds very nice with all those noble, strong words: accountability, achievement, success. But embedded deep in NCLB's flawed foundation is the assumption that standardized tests are a sound way to measure understanding and mastery of material, in spite of much evidence to the contrary.

Let's get something clear: Doing well on a standardized test really only means that you're good at taking standardized tests. Sure, there is a correlation between those who do well on standardized tests and those who know the subjects and understand the concepts, but such a heavy emphasis on these tests will only bring about a nation of good standardized test takers. Just imagine: A new generation emerges into college and the work-world with only a dim ability to tackle unheard-of problems, come up with innovative solutions, and generally think for themselves. ("What'dya mean this isn't a multiple choice test? I thought that was the only kind.")

The substantial flaws in standardized testing are obnoxious on their own but poisonous as a part of NCLB. If teachers "teach to the test," as many are apt to do out of fear of sanctions, children will learn that there is only one right answer. They will imbibe the message that only the result is important, not the process of how you get there. They will value a perfectly filled-in circle over contemplating a question for hours and scribbled thoughts on notebook paper.

If a child is consistently struggling with the material, what he or she needs is follow-up, individual attention, a different teaching approach, even something as simple as the right classroom materials. A teacher would know better than the rest of us would, which is why we should support teachers and help them do their job instead of scaring them out of doing it and punishing them for results that are not their fault.

Maybe instead of taking standardized tests, classes can analyze what's wrong with them ("What do you think -- bees or flowers?"). That's what will really teach children to think. And maybe that's what the Bush administration is most afraid of.
Prema Polit is an editorial intern at AlterNet.
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