From 1991 to 1993 I, along with my wife, worked in the public schools in the Aldine Independent School district in and around Houston, Texas. We witnessed first hand what it was like to work in a district whose future depended upon the outcome of a single test. The test was called the T.A.A.S. test (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) and everything we did as teachers had to have an accompanying TAAS objective. If it wasn't covered on the test, it wasn't worth covering in class.
Teachers and students alike were called together for pep rallies to encourage each person to do their best on the exam. Practice tests were taken, TAAS tutorial sessions were held, and test taking strategies were taught. The entire year was devoted to the "mighty TAAS" and as a teacher you had better tow the line. If student scores were below average, there would be hell to pay. However, if the scores were good enough the adminstrator received a cash bonus. From an educational standpoint, this was no way to run a school system. So after two years, my wife and I left Texas because we knew that we didn't want our children going through an education system like the one we had witnessed there.
We finally settled here in Illinois where we thought we would be safe from the plague of high stakes testing we were so desperately trying to escape. You can imagine our horror when George W. Bush became President in 2001 and promised to reform education. We knew what that meant. Now here we are again, teaching in Illinois under the pressures of a high stakes testing system. The only difference is that now the test is the Prairie State Exam (PSAE).
While I'm not opposed to all testing, the methods employed by the NCLB act are detrimental to the true process of education. When the stakes are set so high, the pressure becomes too much for teachers and districts to bear. The need to perform soon outweighs the need to educate and schools begin "teaching to the test." That is, they teach only the skills necessary to perform well on the exam. While this looks good on school report cards, the long-term ramifications are frightening. As we have seen in the latest data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, our students are actually losing ground to most other countries in the area of mathematics literacy and we are simply treading water in most other categories.
The reason for this is because teaching to the test goes against the most basic principles of education. Teachers are reduced to teaching processes instead of concepts and students are relegated to memorizing a series of steps in order to obtain an answer that means nothing to them. Processes are only good for one particular instance while concepts apply to a wide range of issues.
Let me give you an example:
One of the areas I teach is computer applications. In our basic computer courses we teach word processing. While Microsoft Word is the standard, it is not the only program available for the task. Therefore, it would be unwise for me to simply teach my students to use Microsoft Word. By teaching them the concepts of word processing, as opposed to the processes of Word, they are now prepared to use other word processing programs like Microsoft Works, Appleworks, Word Perfect, etc. It works the same in math, science, music, art, psychology, and any other subject you care to name.
Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind has tied our hands. Our math and science teachers are now forced to teach to the test if they wish to keep their jobs and our school districts are forced to encourage the practice if they wish to keep themselves out of hot water and maintain their funding. All the while our children are learning processes that can only be applied to specific situations in life instead of the concepts they really need to succeed.
Until this process is reversed we can expect to see our country fall further behind the rest of the world. In these technologically advanced times, knowledge is power and George W. Bush is slowly sapping the strength from our future.