Opinion

Recently the superintendent of schools for our state dropped in to have educators in our region take our new state graduation test. The intent, we are told, was to “demystify the tests.” While she was at it, I wish she had taken the mystery out of a few more things about the high-stakes tests our kids must pass.

For example, why have we come to rely on just one test to tell us everything we should know about our children? For decades parents, employers, and colleges have relied on multiple measures of each child’s school achievement. Report cards, grades, resumes, portfolios, performances, and letters of recommendation – they all add up to a profile of a child. Even colleges ask for more than a test score, requesting transcripts of grades, a school profile, letters of recommendation, and often an essay to help them choose students who will succeed.

Here’s another mystery: Why do we rely only on these test scores to judge our schools? The new federal legislation known as “No Child Left Behind” relies only on test scores to see if anyone is left behind. States like ours are then forced to test kids at various grade levels. If the kids don’t do well enough, the school is judged to be failing. Is this all our schools are about – having kids pass standardized tests? What about all the other things our schools do and teach, including the arts, character, athletics, community involvement, physical fitness, and the rest? Presumably we should no longer bother with them, as the only thing that counts are test scores in reading, math, and science.

Another mystery to me is our state superintendent’s claim that passing these tests “is what our business and higher education communities want.” Really? I thought businesses wanted people who would work hard, contribute new ideas, and do quality work. The last college professors I spoke to wanted kids who could think and use their minds well. As far as I can tell, the tests we are giving kids have little to do with any of these characteristics.

Even more mysterious is the superintendent’s claim that “we are not promoting teaching to the test.” If that is the case, why are the tests so high-stakes? When parents and children know that graduation depends on passing a test, they have every right to pressure teachers to teach to the test. When schools and school districts are judged by test scores, we should expect them to focus on raising those scores. Here’s the mystery to me: Whom do we think we are fooling when we act like we are not teaching to the test?

One last mystery I’d like cleared up – whose idea was this focus on testing anyway? I have yet to meet a single parent or student who thinks it’s a good idea. In over a decade as a high school principal, I have yet to have a prospective employer or university admissions office call to discuss test scores. And I don’t know of any research or study that says high-stakes testing helps kids learn or schools improve.

So why do it? Why conduct this social experiment on our children? Why does the Bush administration push so hard for testing our kids over, and over, and over again?

Could it be that testing is cheaper than addressing the real issues in our schools – issues that have to do with decaying buildings, overcrowded classrooms, or too few teachers? Could it be that focusing on testing takes our attention away from other issues, such as inadequate health care for our youth, childhood poverty and malnutrition, and the stress on families as the ranks of the jobless and underemployed grow daily?

One or more of these may be the clue to understanding the mystery of the current administration’s fascination with high-stakes testing. But I’d like to think that ordinary people, with real kids in real schools, want something more than just a number on a score sheet to reflect their children’s school experience.

I know I do.

George Wood is principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He wrote this for The Advancement Project, www.advancementproject.org.

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