Moving Beyond “Standard” In Our Schools

The only thing standardized testing accomplishes is producing standard students. The world needs exceptional students, not standard.

This thought has been on my mind all day. It came to me while my wife and I were talking about our kids this morning, and getting them ready to go back to school.

See, we’ve been lazy. We’ve spent the summer focusing on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time with our children in general. Now that school is almost upon us, we’re trying to get the kids back into the academic swing of things because we don’t want them to be behind before school even gets started. In fact, NPR ran a story yesterday on closing the summer gap, and all of this has got me thinking:

It really sucks that kids have to be such slaves to the test.

Because that’s what this boils down to, really. Kids are being tested in the fall, the winter, and the spring, all because we’ve decided that measuring their retention levels is the most precise method of determining their learning capacities.

The truly crappy part is, it’s not working so well. According to a report from the BBC, the United States ranks 28th (tied with Italy) in world education rankings. That’s not as bad as two years ago, when the US ranked 36th in the world.

I feel strongly about this issue because, for two years, I taught an adjunct class for Grayson High School students. It was a social sciences class that focused on world religions and philosophy, and what I quickly discovered was how woefully unprepared my students were for a lifetime of critical thinking.

Of course, no one likes to be made to think. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself simply by thinking once or twice a week.”

But that wasn’t true of the kids I taught. I had some of the smartest, most capable kids the school could throw at me, and yet many of them weren’t skilled in thinking their own thoughts. They were exceptional a parroting back to me whatever I said, but when pressed for their own insights, most struggled to come up with anything to say.

Now, you might be saying, “Well, duh – they’re only teenagers.”

And to that I reply, “You must not have teens of your own or ever remember being a teenager.”

Because if there’s one thing that’s true about teenagers, it’s that they have opinions. On everything. Often very strong ones. But you most likely hear those opinions outside of the classroom, because individuality in thought isn’t often on the agenda in class. And why is that?

Because teachers have to teach to the test. They don’t have the time to teach kids to think, critically or otherwise, because we’ve tied their hands. Their job security, their salaries, even their professional reputations are directly connected to how well their students perform on a stupid test. I’m convinced most teachers would like to try and do things differently, but we’ve stacked the deck too much against them. Survival depends on getting kids ready for the test.

Now, about here is where I should go off the rails and call for all standardized testing to be banned. I should bang my angry fists on the table and decry the evil test-taking machine that has consumed public education, all while calling for a return to “the good old days”.

Except we need to test kids. Progress that can’t be measured isn’t progress.

So what do we need to do? For starters, I think we need fewer standardized tests. I can’t remember the entire alphabet soup that kids have to face–CRCT, ITBS, COGAT, CIA, OMG–but we’re cramming more tests in to the exclusion of other things.

If we could back off the number of tests, then there would be time and space in the day for teachers to inspire kids, identify their unique traits and encourage them to develop their gifts.

You know, the stuff teachers are gifted at doing.

And if teachers could do that, then we’d see a dramatic shift in the kids. More creativity. More individual growth. Connections would get made between disciplines, ideas would spark out of seemingly unrelated things; heck, we might even see an improvement in student behavior because the days wouldn’t seem quite so pointless.

But we have the system we have, right? I know that for the foreseeable future, my children will have to prepare themselves to take an endless battery of examinations that will determine their future while not necessarily preparing them for it. That’s why my wife and I work hard to supplement their school education with other types of education.

Like a summer spent on things like fun, making memories, and just enjoying time being children in general.

What do you think, parents? Where do you stand on the standardized test? What would you like to see change in the school system?

Sound off in the comments below, or on my Facebook page.

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