No Child Left Behind: Would fewer standardized tests do the trick?

The Republican-led Senate is expected to propose a bill that would put an end to standardized tests in schools. Could this help parents encourage their own kids' learning outside the classroom?

Detroit Free Press/AP/FILE
In this undated photo, No. 2 pencils are arranged on a standardized testing bubble answer sheet in Detroit, Mich.

Raise your hand if you are tired of standardized testing and want more of an old school approach to education that won't revolve around the tests, but rather the quality of education our children experience in school.

After more than a decade of parents, teachers, and even administrators railing against the "No Child Left Behind" act, which has shaped the US education system curriculums to be largely dependent on standardized tests, it seems there may be new legislation introduced from the Republican-majority US Senate to drastically reduce the number of federally-mandated standardized tests.

According to Education Weekly, “Senate GOP aides, who are hoping to get a bill reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act on the runway early in the new year, are getting started on legislation that looks very similar to a bill Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the incoming chairman of the Senate education committee, introduced last year.”

Back in June 2014, both Democrats, led by then-Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the education committee, and Republicans introduced their versions of a renewed No Child Left Behind Act.

Both parties moved away from standardized testing practices, proposing reductions in the amount of testing kids undergo.

While this bill may not eliminate standardized testing entirely, it may be a step toward dismantling a system that has become a bit like the “Hunger Games” of education, pitting our children against multiple tests with their only reward being to survive another day.

Warren Stewart, a school board member in Norfolk, Va. and former superintendent, pointed to the tests as what ruined a lot of what teachers worked hard to build.

“When high-stakes testing came into play most of my colleagues from across the board at the federal, state and local levels have always felt it was the ruination of our public education system.”

“Ruination” is harsh coming from an educator whom I have known for 10 years to be a usually reserved, upbeat, team player kind of spokesman for the education system.

Having put four sons through a school system largely dominated by "No Child Left Behind" policies, I can say with some authority that the topic of standardized testing can transform even the most meek educator or parent into a tiger pulled by the tail.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers hopes a law change would end high-stakes testing and put accountability back on school districts to ensure a student’s whole success.

In an emailed statement, Ms. Weingarten said, “High-stakes testing has eclipsed teaching and learning in our public schools today, with students being viewed more and more as test scores, with less and less time devoted to instruction and to meeting the needs of every child. The potential of a federal law change would be to have fewer and better tests, provide struggling schools with the help they need, hold schools districts accountable for the many things that enable a student’s success, and ensure equity in school funding so that all students and teachers get the resources and support they need.”

“Notice how we call it ‘high-stakes testing’ and not ‘standardized testing,’” Mr. Stewart pointed out. “That’s because 50 years ago you could call it simply standardized testing to get a measure on the direction a child was taking. Now it’s tied to federal funding and peoples’ continued employment so we call it ‘high-stakes testing’ because far too much is riding on it.”

Then Stewart asked pointedly, “If standardized testing is so beneficial, so wonderful, why don’t all our colleagues in the private education sector jump on and do it voluntarily?”

“I’ll tell you why,” Stewart said in answer to his own query, “It would ruin them. It would ruin their ability to have teachers do a good job of teaching their content areas. Just as it has ruined our public schools.”

My personal example of this is our son, Ian, now 19 and a sophomore in college.

Very early on, Ian was identified as a Standards of Learning (SOL) test taking super star.

The kid could walk in and ace the SOLs without preamble, study, or fanfare, thus helping to boost his school’s performance average.

So began years of bad scholastic habits fostered by a system that rewards high scores more than learning.

Thus, Ian became known as a great test taker, but a dreadful student. He realized that his teachers, principal, and on occasion even the superintendent of schools, would stop by at test time to pat him on the back and praise him as if he were an Olympic athlete or a prize race horse.

I would get calls the day before SOL testing began each spring from teachers giving me friendly reminders to make sure he had a big breakfast, enough sleep, and was relaxed before testing.

However, because Ian was able to quickly and easily pick out the test cues in each lesson and memorize them, he felt everything else about school, like homework, reading, and projects were worthless because they had nothing to do with the testing.

By middle school, he’d lost all respect for teachers with the exception of his music teachers because they were outside the testing world.

In high school, his grades were atrocious. No matter what I tried he would not be moved because he could always show me the change in his teachers’ attitudes from berating his poor work ethic daily to becoming his best buddies and cheerleaders during test weeks.

It was a major struggle to get him into college and I think he only got in because he tested so well on the SATs.

I tried to tell Ian his teachers had no control over curriculum and would much rather do things differently. I explained that in many circumstances,  the teachers were reacting to something that now was tied to their job performance reviews, salary, and continued employment and it was.

He would not be moved to try harder in class.

It wasn’t until he began college that his perception of educators changed.

“Mom, they’re actually teaching for the sake of getting a point across,” he told me week one of college. “You can’t believe the difference! It’s like a different world. I want to do well in all my classes because I respect my teachers so much and I can’t stand to disappoint them.”

Now that he isn’t forced to learn only specialized, standardized, packets of information that need to be precisely regurgitated on cue, my son is a top-notch student – a learning machine.

High-stakes testing may have burned out our teachers, students, and public education system. Perhaps, like the Hunger Games character Katniss Everdeen’s rebellion, it may be time for this anti-test movement to catch fire.

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