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High Test Scores? Look At Columbine

Five years ago, automatic weapons fire echoed through the halls of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., shattering not only lives but the complacency of that high-achieving suburban school. The attack focused national attention on issues of school safety, school climate, student isolation, bullying and the victimization that depersonalized school environments seem to foster. There was widespread acknowledgment that teachers and administrators needed to find ways to know kids better and create real communities in our schools. It was a brief moment of national soul-searching, reminding us that education is not only about teaching content but also about supporting and developing human beings.

Since then, much attention has been given to beefing up school security and safety. Sales of school metal detectors have flourished. New school crisis response plans are in place. Halls are being monitored more carefully. Law enforcement agencies are cooperating more closely with school officials, and schools, of necessity, are being run in more regimented ways. Teachers and administrators are more likely to at least know where their students are during the day, if not who they are as individuals.

But some of the most important lessons of Columbine have been all but forgotten - left behind, so to speak, in no small measure because of another educational development of recent years: the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law's narrow focus on yearly improvement in test scores has forced many schools to narrow their goals for students in ways that comply with the law's intent but that may well have unintended consequences. As class time becomes more regimented and tight budgets create larger class sizes, schools are becoming environments even less conducive to teachers' knowing their students well. No-child forces communities to focus more on raising test scores than on raising kids.

While it is true that statistics on school violence have shown a continuing decline since 1995, incidents of bullying and victimization are on the rise. In 2001, 8 percent of students ages 12 through 18 reported being bullied at school, up from 5 percent in 1999. A recent report from the American Medical Association on students from sixth through 10th grades estimated that more than 3.2 million young people are victims of moderate or serious bullying each year.

Raising student achievement is important, but history has taught some hard lessons about what happens when a single-minded focus on test scores replaces a more comprehensive set of indicators of what constitutes a successful school. Across the country, schools are reporting that the pressures of no-child-required testing regimes are crowding out teacher time and forcing cutbacks in such "frills" as art, music, physical education and recess. In their place: more test prep and drills and increasing levels of regimentation, student alienation and teacher stress.

The growing belief that rising test scores alone equate to successful schools is false, and it can breed a deadly complacency. The test scores at Columbine High were among the highest in Colorado. The tragic incidents there and in Conyers, Ga.; Santana, Calif.; and elsewhere were in part the result of such complacency.

Teachers and administrators may fail to see the warning signs when they focus exclusively on measures of school performance that can easily be counted, such as test scores, and not on the ones most likely to signal problems that can lead to a tragedy. Student creativity and problem-solving skills, respect for differences, excitement about learning, self-esteem, civic engagement and school climate are barometers of school and student success for which test scores are, at best, a weak proxy.

Performing well on math and literacy tests is not the only predictor of how one will perform as a member of the society. The likelihood that a large proportion of the nation's schools will be labeled "underperforming" by no-child's narrow measures will raise the stakes even more. Teachers will be pressured to concentrate still more of their efforts on drills and tests rather than on developing broadly educated students who will become responsible and engaged citizens.

The danger is not just that the lessons of Columbine are being lost because of No Child Left Behind but that they may have to be taught to us again - at painful cost.

Margaret A. McKenna is president of Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She wrote this for The Washington Post.
Copyright 2004, Hartford Courant

— Margaret A. McKenna
Washington Post


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