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NCLB Outrages

Love of learning lost as students, schools focus on passing tests

Yep, I was all for more tests and more sanctions on schools that didn't measure up. How could they hurt? That's what I thought until, as a parent, I was exposed first-hand to the disturbing transformation in school instruction caused by the federal education mandate.

by Marilou Johanek

THE season of No. 2 pencils, churning stomachs, headaches, extreme nail biting, sweaty palms, dazed expressions, and nonstop testing of America's public school children has arrived - along with spring. But the glorious sunshine and budding Mother Nature outside are just annoying distractions to the all-important testing going on inside school buildings.

Before I had kids in the system, I concurred with other taxpayers who supported the increased testing and accountability measurements mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Local districts should be held accountable for the teaching and learning that goes on in schools.

The point seemed indisputable. Too many slacker facilities were turning out slacker students. Lord knows how many illiterate alums have passed through public school doors on their way to dead-end futures. It made sense to threaten educators with punitive measures for failing to produce quantifiable evidence of classroom progress.

Yep, I was all for more tests and more sanctions on schools that didn't measure up. How could they hurt? That's what I thought until, as a parent, I was exposed first-hand to the disturbing transformation in school instruction caused by the federal education mandate.

Kids aren't learning how to think and ask questions anymore. They're learning how to pass standardized tests. Teaching is too often narrowed to the test, which becomes the curriculum. And whatever doesn't directly impact on the test is vulnerable to district-wide program cuts.

The benefits of a broad education are being lost. What should henceforth be known as No Child Left Untested has worsened,not improved, U.S. schools by its shortsighted absurdity. It is a testing scheme masquerading as school reform that compromises genuine learning.

At some level everybody intimately involved in a child's education knows that and tries to cope with it. Some do it better than others but all are operating under no-win circumstances.

Truth is, you don't really understand what "teaching to the test" means until your elementary school student brings home bulky practice-test packets night after night after spending day after day in school practicing for tests. Some days, students separate into smaller, intervention groups to pinpoint weaknesses identified in trial tests.

These are taken regularly in school until students get them right. In the weeks leading up to the crucial spring tests, it's all about drilling kids to prepare for the hours-long exam marathon on which so much depends. My third grader drills until her fingers ache from filling in bubbles on computerized test sheets.

But the pressure to perform she's under is nothing compared to what her teachers and school administrators are experiencing as daffodils bloom, birds chirp, and April breezes sweeten the air. No seasonal delights divert the attention of test-obsessed teachers, whose continuing employment hinges on how well their charges do on T-Day.

Administrators maintain an outward calm but they, too, operate under a virtual sledge hammer. Penalties for not producing acceptable test scores include loss of funding. With public schools strapped for money, even after staff and curriculum reductions, losing even more financing could be disastrous.

So the strain to preserve funds and jobs tied directly to classroom results is ever-present in elementary through secondary education. Kids-as-testing-machines are expected, from early on, to keep pace with the program, grasp an impossible list of required standards, and hurry along in their learning.

Students who don't walk in lockstep are out of luck. Schools don't have the time or resources to spend on kids who, God forbid, learn or develop differently from their peers. They throw a wrench into the whole approach that judges all students the same. Besides, they could lower test scores for the classroom or school at large.

Adding to the NCLB madness is the packed curriculum teachers must run through in a year while maintaining their crazy testing schedule. They can't wait for their students to actually master any concept or develop a deeper understanding of what's been learned by applying it to different situations.

And they have little leeway to explore alternate teaching methods that emphasize innovation, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Instruction for some good teachers has become more of a stressful, standards-based chore than fun.

Certainly as a parent, I want high standards and accountability from teachers and administrators. But what I see under No Child Left Behind is a system that revolves around tests to the detriment of a comprehensive education.

Worse, the love of learning is not being cultivated into a lifelong passion. What matters most is the test, the score, and how apprehensive grade-school kids, nervously chewing their No. 2 pencils on a splendid spring day, measure up to "education reform."

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com

— Marilou Johanek
Toledo Blade


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