A few months back I got into an interesting discussion with my high school friends on Facebook about the books we read in our tenth grade advanced English class at Westhill High School in Stamford. My friend Debbie, who’s clearly even more of a pack rat than my mother, still had the syllabus, and was able to rattle off impressively long list of books that we’d read and analyzed. When I compared it to the number of books my daughter, a high school sophomore, will get through this year in her advanced English class, it’s really quite astounding.
But actually, it’s not. When I look at the school calendar, the entire month of March is lost to CMT/CAPT testing. And that’s just the actual testing. Much of the month before will be devoted to exercises that prepare students for the tests. Not for reading great works of literature and learning to use critical thinking skills, but rather for learning test taking skills. This year my daughter has already taken the PSATs, and will soon be facing the pressure of prepping for the SATs, and then AP exams. All this, while keeping up with homework, participating in extracurricular activities and actually trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Oh yeah, and actually getting a bit of sleep once in a while, because teenagers actually need that.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set forth his goals for reform in his Dec. 20th letter to educators. Various educational constituencies have been putting forth proposals since then, including the CEA, and CT Association of Public School Superintendents.
However, when I read that ConnCan’s CEO Patrick Riccards said “there is still no dispute that test scores have to be a primary driver to that formula,” I must beg to differ. I dispute that, wholeheartedly, and I am not alone.
The one thing that is indisputable is that good teachers create value , and great teachers can change the course of a child’s life. Yet the high stakes test score driven culture promoted by Riccards and the organizations he represents is forcing good teachers out of the schools. A good friend of mine, the acclaimed author Jordan Sonnenblick, taught middle school until he felt compelled to leave the profession in 2008. Jordan loved his kids and loved teaching. You’d have been thrilled if your kids were lucky enough to have him for English. He wrote a moving essay about why NCLB drove him to quit:
“Never mind the fact that the state tests are insanely invalid, that they’re graded by the lowest bidder, that the test-prep materials are rushed to press by fly-by-night companies, riddled with errors and stinking of the absolute worst in half-baked pedagogy. Never mind that the expense of hiring these companies as “consultants” sucks the lifeblood out of libraries and tech budgets. And never mind the ultimate irony, that replacing every good aspect of school with test prep will undoubtedly result inlower test scores. The reality is that the leaders of this great nation are working very hard to turn our children into undereducated test drones. And we are letting them get away with it.”
Employers complaining to Malloy that they can’t find qualified candidates are not going to get them by more standardized testing, no matter what the Patrick Riccards of the world tell you. The reason our kids aren’t qualified is because we’ve gutted their learning time with too much testing, hamstrung the teachers by making them teach to the test and and cut programs that encourage critical thinking. In a 21st century global society, the ability to synthesize and make connections, and technical skills (yet our school systems block many of the websites that would enable them to learn to utilize those skills) that will give students the flexibility to survive in the workplace.
Oh, and then there’s the cheating. Michelle Rhee, mouthpiece of the “our kids are a sum of their test scores” movement and star of its propaganda piece, Waiting for Superman, has never been particularly press shy, even going as far as to invite the documentary cameras for PBS in while she fired a school principal. Yet since it has been revealed that the poster boy for her reforms in DC, Wayne Ryan, was falsifying test scores at the Noyes Educational Complex, she has been strangely silent. Noyes’ cheating came to light after a father become suspicious of his daughter’s high math scores because she couldn’t perform basic arithmetic functions. Yet when he brought his suspicions to the school, Rhee banned him from setting foot on the school campus. And the DC cheating scandal is just one of many nationwide.
So who, exactly, is this all testing benefiting? I’ll tell you one thing. It’s not our kids.
Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.