If there’s one thing I attained from middle and high school, it’s an almost god-like ability to answer multiple-choice questions.
After all, back in 2002, when then-President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, these skills served as benchmarks to gauge the success of America’s public school system. The ultimate goal was for every single student in the country, regardless of race or economic class, to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
It was a noble experiment, but it has also proven to be a failed experiment. Currently, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of schools will not meet the federal government’s criteria by 2014. There are still huge achievement gaps, and in worldwide education rankings, the United States is squarely in the middle of the pack.
Earlier this month, President Obama announced that he has decided to significantly modify numerous aspects of NCLB, but even if judging a school’s performance becomes a state-level endeavor, standardized testing is still very much going to be a reality in public education.
And because of this, K-12 education is going to keep failing students.
Teachers say that any student who has spent time in a public school since 2002 is going to have a skill set shaped significantly by NCLB. They say this comes from their obligation to teach to the test, meaning that while students are capable of answering multiple-choice problems, more innately useful skills, like critical thinking, are put on the backburner.
“I think, as a teacher, we really want the kids to learn,” said one elementary school teacher I spoke to. “But I think the No Child Left Behind Act has really become the “No Child Left Untested” act. Most of the things we do revolve around testing the kids, and therefore teaching to the test. This has become our default curriculum.”
A former high school teacher of mine agreed, saying that teaching to the test means doing a crappy job as a teacher, because it forces her to teach out of context to satisfy a very specific, test-oriented curriculum.
“I personally don’t think that’s teaching,” she said.
I took standardized tests every year from the time I was nine or 10 to the time I was 16. While I was lucky enough to graduate from a fantastic, well-funded district and (for the most part) have fantastic teachers, I remember feeling an immense pressure to succeed on standardized tests.
CSAP training occupied weeks of school. I remember long, painful study sessions and a disproportional emphasis on English and math. I remember the nervous looks on my teachers’ faces as we opened up our fresh CSAP booklets, and I remember my parents scrutinizing both mine and my school’s test results, pretending like they actually understood what the hell they meant.
While my ability to rock a multiple choice test has helped me quite a bit in my semi-useless 100-level core classes in college, I still can’t help but wonder: Was it all worth it? Am I really more prepared for college and the professional world by virtue of these tests, or was I shortchanged from getting the most out of my education?
“Your generation is the most tested generation, but I don’t think it means you’re the most educated,” my former high school teacher said. “In fact, I think many of the important skills of creativity and critical thinking have suffered because of the amount of testing.”
And this is unfortunate. As I transition into my professional life, I’ve come to realize that creativity and critical thinking are the skills I need the most. Life isn’t a series of multiple-choice questions for us to bubble in.
As we fight for education reform, I hope that this is taken into account. If the United States wants to move ahead of the middle of the pack, we can’t just think a set of multiple choice tests and a series of arbitrary guidelines are going to solve our problems.
The economic crisis isn’t simply a matter of filling in bubbles with our No. 2 pencils. We actually need to think critically about it. And to do so, our public school system needs to encourage us to think critically.
Judging a school’s success by its student’s ability to take a test isn’t going to help anyone. We need to judge a school’s success by something that, while a bit less tangible, is more significant.
Call me crazy, but I want my kids to be able to do something a bit cooler than have a god-like ability to answer multiple-choice questions. Like actually solve real problems.