[Susan notes: A teacher speaks out about standardized tests and the need to treat different students differently.]
Published in Daily Triplicate
My students shared Mr. Bill McWhirter’s Letter to the Editor, “Only pass those who make the grade,” of May 17 with me. They READ it. They also comprehended it and replied to it. They all understand that Mr. McWhirter has the freedom to express his opinion just as I did in my letter of May 7, and do now. Some of them agree that Mr. McWhirter made a good point about only passing students who can do the work well enough to make the grade. Then they questioned, “What happens to those who don’t, or can't?” Mr. McWhirter says that they should be retained until they can do the work required of that grade.
I have taught students from ages 6 to 64. I have spent many dollars and much time studying how we learn so that I can learn how to teach. What I have learned in the real world of my classroom is that a person’s brain is as unique as his fingerprints. Each one develops at its own rate and in its own way. Most of us learn to talk, walk, and use the potty somewhere between ages 2 and 4, and most of us learn to read, write, and count somewhere between ages 3 and 8. However, these windows of opportunity to learn vary greatly with environment and resources. We must also consider the key factors of ability and aptitude and how these factors influence our motivation and desire to learn. But, we must all go to school. It is required by law. And today’s public schools say that we must all learn algebra and go to college. But, can all students learn algebra and go to college? An equally important question is, do they want to?
What Mr. McWhirter, some educators, and most legislators fail to recognize is this: we are all wired differently. We learn different bits of information at different rates in different ways. I believe that the public high school diploma should mean LITERATE. Parents want this, students need this to become independent adults, and employers are demanding this. If the California High School Exit Exam is assessing LITERACY, I support it.
I support giving tests like the STAR/CAT6 that are based on state standardized curriculum designed to prepare students for college to students who are preparing to go to college. I do not support giving these tests to students who are still struggling to master literacy. I have had some awesome experiences in my teaching career witnessing students learning to read and write. Some were 6 years old, some were 16, and some were 26. I had the magical experience of observing one 64-year-old woman learn how to write her name. They all had the ability and the desire, but they had never had the resources or the opportunities. Their accomplishments were great, but they would fail those standardized tests.
All students learning the same lesson on the same day in the same way is a dream for most teachers. It rarely happens. Life’s circumstances often distract students from learning the lesson for the day. Life’s hardships sometimes disturb students to such a degree that it makes them unavailable for learning. Yet, we are given the task of teaching all of them the same content during the same window of time, and we are held accountable for our teaching by testing them. If they fail these tests and are left behind, where do they go? Some, if their parents have the resources, will be taught at home. Some will find their way to alternative schools, private schools, or charter schools. Some will drop out and remain illiterate. For some, the accumulated humiliation they feel by being held back as failures will grow to anger and as they age out or are pushed out of the school system, some will find their way to our prison cells.
I have had many students tell me that they "failed kindergarten." Did keeping them back help? Maybe, but they are still behind in mastering basic skills, so maybe not, and they still carry that battle scar with them today.
President Bush wants “No Child Left Behind.” Then, we need to open the school doors wide and offer more than one way to teach and welcome more than one way to learn and value more than one path to success. We need to offer choices of programs and value those choices, and we need to provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge of literacy and knowledge beyond that basic level that all capable students should master. A paper-pencil test is only one way. It works for many, but not for all.