Dear Mr. Gates,
I often hear that the bar for standardized tests is set too low, that schools are broken, that we could improve test scores by improving our teaching skills and having higher expectations.
The fact is that we expect far more from our children than anyone expected of us. This isn’t necessarily all bad. Whereas, in math, I learned to memorize algorithms (‘carry the one’) children now are taught to understand the concepts behind the algorithms. Writing for young children no longer means copying something from the board or filling in blanks. Reading is no longer Dick and Jane. Children are taught to read and write complex and interesting text at a young age.
In the 80’s, readability levels were pushed down by one year, so text that was previously considered to be at a 3rd grade level was now considered something a second grader should read—too easy for a third grader. In the 90’s, passing scores on our state tests changed from 201 to 204. Later, they changed again to 207. A couple years ago they changed to 211 in reading. This year, they changed to 212 in math. As a Washington teacher once said, “If you can jump four feet, they can move the bar to four feet one inch.”
Testing is a big money business. The more we ‘fail,’ the handier it is for corporations to encourage the state and individual school districts to spend billions on ‘better’ tests, and interim tests, and test –prep curriculum and materials. Or even to close our neighborhood schools and reopen them as for-profit charters.
Under NCLB and Race to the Top, there is extraordinary pressure to increase test scores. I worry that this leads to treating our neediest and most fragile students, as if they are a burden.
Mid-year, I received a sweet boy who had some serious learning difficulties; his mother was driving him to our school from another district because they told her we had more resources for helping a ‘child like him.’ When I told her that we didn’t have any more resources than the other school, she replied, “I guess I knew that, but they clearly don’t want him there, and I don’t want him to have to deal with that.”
Under pressure to increase test scores, many schools have become test-prep factories where children spend their days filling in packets full of mind-numbing worksheets and taking home more of the same for hours of homework.
I work at a great school. Many of us bring our own children (and nieces and nephews) here. 80% of our children live in poverty. 30% are English Language Learners. We provide a precious gem of a school for them. Every teacher has an excellent and extensive classroom library. We have amassed a book room containing hundreds of sets of multiple copies of great literature and emergent readers with which to teach reading. Teachers focus on individual interests, strengths and needs. We work hard to provide quality experiences in science and the arts. We also have a long-running professional book club.
One year, we were put under severe pressure to increase test scores. This changed the entire feeling tone of our dear school, it also changed the way children were being taught. Evidence of active learning and science and social studies disappeared from our classrooms and hallways. The children were feeling the stress from which we are supposed to protect them. Every child knew their score. High-scoring classrooms were rewarded with ice cream parties.
One teacher told me she watched a boy dutifully persevere through the test, and when his score came up as ‘nearly passing’ he set his forehead on the table and sobbed.
I think we all want more for the children of our state– the children of our country. It’s time to stop the greed and madness of NCLB/Race to the Top, and the corporate ed-deform perpetrated by such groups as the Waltons, Gates and Broads.
Education should be based on a family model, not a factory model.
Coos Bay, Oregon