In 2002, No Child Left Behind had a comforting ring to it. No child will fall through the cracks; no child should fail. Five years later, I am truly struggling with this education legislation.
My primary goal as an English teacher is to help kids grow into better human beings. I hope that through the literature and writing I discuss with them in class, they can better shape their thoughts, clarify their positions and decide what they believe in.
Sadly, the human aspect of the humanities class I teach has been stripped from my curriculum and replaced with preparation for standardized tests. The logic of this is unclear, unless the only thing we want our children to learn is how to be good test takers.
The English state assessments are given in mid-January. For the first two weeks of January, my entire lesson plan centers on test preparation. I also do weekly, sometimes daily, lessons beginning in September. My students complete numerous packets and sample tests to raise their scores.
Rather than honing students' skills, No Child Left Behind places pressure on administrators, and therefore on teachers, to raise test scores so we can score higher than our neighboring districts. How do I know this? If the act advocated the building of skills, I could still teach those skills through the literature and activities I once used.
Instead, I rush through "The Outsiders," which teaches the importance of loyalty and friendship, and "The Diary of Anne Frank," which fosters discussion on genocide, social activism and oppression, so that my students can take last year's assessment.
My education classes in college had titles like "Methods in Teaching." I wonder now if there ought to be "Methods in State Assessment Preparation." Student teachers are often criticized for not being familiar enough with the state assessments. In content, state assessment expertise has sadly taken the place of Langston Hughes or Mark Twain. Perhaps we should replace "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" with "The Celebrated List of Jumping Test Scores in Erie County."
The dichotomy between the original purpose for these assessments and the manner in which they are used now is the true irony. According to No Child Left Behind, these tests set minimum levels of proficiency for students to meet over the course of their education. It is not a test that measures mastery. An academic department may look at five years of testing results to determine if there is adequate improvement in a given area.
The results are not meant to be viewed in isolation, yet every year, Western New York eagerly awaits the list of whose test scores are the best. Is this really the direction in which we want education to go? The districts at the top hold their heads arrogantly high, while the districts at the bottom are shunned in education circles. Has our vision become so narrow that a single number determines who receives accolades?
Our focus has become reaching the top of that annual list. When we use these test scores to compete against and "beat" neighboring districts, then the assessments have lost any educational value they may have had. The approach to these tests has corrupted the way we teach. Every teacher is being left behind in terms of ingenuity, creative lesson planning and integrity within the classroom. Every child is being left behind when it comes to character development, varied educational experiences and autonomous thought.