A Teacher'sThoughts as Another Testing Season Rolls By
By Claudia Ayers
Anyone who has been moved by the fictional Sylvia Barrett in Bel
Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase," or Sidney Portier's vision of E.R.
Braithwaith's teaching experience in "To Sir, With Love," or Frank
McCourt's brilliant recent contribution "Teacher Man," will appreciate
that teaching is as much art as science.
Anyone paying the least attention to the Bush approach to manipulating
public spending to benefit corporations and cronies at the expense of
the public should know by now that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was
written by people who have never taught in public schools. School
administrators who yearn to "take back their schools" from its mandates
or who complain about it being under-funded need to step up and do more
to protect their charges by joining forces to expose it for what it is
--another law with an Orwellian name that, instead of providing for
children, will deliberately leave millions of children and young adults
behind while cranking tens of billions of dollars into the coffers of
test-writing and for-profit education corporations.
School board members and school administrators know there is a problem,
yet they spend entirely too much time working within the confines of the
problem instead of doing something that will fix it. Congress must amend
this straitjacket of a law by actually supporting school children,
authentic learning and teachers.
Today we have accountability mania. Ten or 20 years ago, headlines were
made on a slow news day when it was discovered a handful of kids
graduated from high school who could not read. Clearly, schools were
failing abominably and needed to be held accountable. You know the rest
of the story; now we test kids every other day in school, we don't
promote them (even though we know this is tantamount to condemning them
to becoming dropouts), and we don't let them graduate without passing
the High School Exit Exam. We start school in early August to better
attempt to finish detailed curricular standards before the tests are
given in the early spring (well before the school year is actually
over). All too often we take away art, music and recess because this
cuts into test prep time, but we can't afford these programs anyway
because paying for all the standardized tests and the test-prep software
has used up what few dollars come our way.
None of this has actually improved schools overall, and schools were
never as bad as one might think based on the fear-mongering generated by
some uninformed politicians. It is now far, far more important that
education become more rigorous than it is to make it enjoyable or
Kids have their scores right in their faces. These are typically
"normed" scores; a 36th percentile score means 35 out of 100 kids scored
lower than you did, and 64 out of 100 scored higher. Our kids know that
they get "As" when they score 90 percent or higher in their classes,
"Bs" for 80 to 89 percent and so on. Of course, a perfectly "normal"
child will score at the 50th percentile on a standardized test, and this
child will immediately think "I am so-o-o stupid, I failed this test,"
instead of "Fine, I'm a typical kid, I think I'll go outside and play."
I have seen children who burst into tears when they get standardized
scores in the 80s because they thought they were "A" students and this
proved they were not. These tests, in fact, prove nothing.
One standard deviation from normal is the group in a population that is
the "most typical." This accounts for very nearly 70 percent of our
children. In other words, the "normal" kids have scores on standardized
tests that range from about 15-85 percent. These, if you will, are all
typical students. Those above and below this range are two or three
standard deviations from normal. They may be English-language learners,
students with a learning disability, or, on the other side of the
distribution, students with a special talent for successfully whizzing
What do test scores and grades, for that matter, really tell you? Not
Parents, you sabotage authentic learning when you ask how well your
child is doing, rather than asking about what your child is learning.
Grades, actually, are not motivational, and plenty of studies back this
Standardized test scores will not give you a lick of information about
your child's ability to stick with a problem, to be creative, to be a
good problem-solver, to be a good citizen or a good listener, to speak
bilingually, to have and support friendships, to be of high moral fiber,
to participate well in democracy, to have artistic or athletic talents,
to develop and rely on inner strengths, to care about the world and all
living things as an interconnected web, to enjoy reading books, to
thoroughly research a topic, to have a good sense of humor, to be
self-reliant, or to be a valued participant in your family. These scores
will only tell you how well your child takes standardized tests.
If the testocrats are not stopped, millions of kids who have done
everything else right will not graduate from the schools where they have
spent four years passing classes, because they are not good standardized
test-takers. Whether a student is a dropout or is pushed out of high
school, the results are the same: They will comprise half of the heads
of households on welfare and an even higher percentage of the prison
population. It costs society five to 10 times as much to imprison a
person for one year as to educate a school-age child.
Let's hold the Bush administration accountable for something and take
back the education of our children. Let's work to make school a place
where children love to go by completely reforming NCLB. Support
authentic learning; take the money back from testing companies, private
tutors and publicly supported private schools.
Authentic learners enjoy the freedom to pursue their passions; children
constantly exposed to consequences, rigor, standards and high-stakes
tests know only fear. Public policy is correct when it points toward
freedom and devastating when it points toward fear. I was once told in a
job interview that standardized testing was a necessary evil. I amazed
myself by calmly responding that I didn't think evil was ever necessary.
I didn't get that job, but I hope I have gotten your attention.
Claudia Ayers is a teacher at Aptos High./
Santa Cruz Sentinel
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES