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Students, Suffering Yet Packaged

With our test-score fixation, the message we're sending is denial

November 24, 2002|Gary Smith | Gary Smith is a high school teacher in Anaheim.

Supporters of standardized testing of California public school students believe that the tests, though expensive and time-consuming, are accurate evaluations of academic achievement and can be used to compare the quality of education delivered in different school settings. They believe that state-mandated penalties and dwindling incentives, when combined with local pressure, will motivate schools to improve student achievement.

But there is widespread dissatisfaction among educators about the validity of many content standards and the test questions used to assess them. Observers also point out that the testing program's underlying assumptions about students and learning environments are out of sync with how students learn.

More important is the inherent dehumanization of students that testing creates by treating education like an assembly line. Teachers pour information identified as important into the students' heads.

If standardized test scores are low, teachers need only add more information to create better products: information-rich students. Neither research nor common experience support this approach.

In our politicized rush to standardized testing, we have forgotten that the products being rushed down the assembly line are our own children.

As we sit in the morning sunlight sharing milk and cereal with our children, we celebrate their multidimensional personalities. We know that each one has special wants and needs, dreams and aspirations, strengths and weaknesses. When we turn them over to schools, we have real expectations: We expect schools to be staffed by caring, skilled educators. We hope that they will be provided sanctuary and guidance so that they can grow in a safe and rich environment. We trust that the schools will provide a safety net to catch children who need special help and guidance.

Sadly, the pressure to prepare students for standardized testing has undermined the ability of educators to maintain that trust. The standardized testing program does not recognize the existence of the whole child. Students who need more and more support in their lives are getting less and less.

To make student needs more concrete: Not long ago, a young high school student of mine shared a story of staggering pain. When she was 6 years old, her mother killed herself as part of a failed plan to also kill my student and her sister.

The young woman's story was heartbreaking and horrifying. Even though I have had more than three decades of teaching experience, my words of consolation were woefully inadequate. The story was dreadful under any circumstances, but it had an even greater impact on me in the wake of other events involving my students during the same year -- events that revealed lives filled with uncertainty, anxiety, loss and pain.

Below are brief descriptions of incidents that provide a sobering view of high school student life:

Five girls became pregnant.

A girl had to flee the state with her family because she witnessed an off-campus murder attempt by a neighborhood gang.

A girl left class vowing to attempt suicide.

A girl told of having a baby who became increasingly ill and, after a month, died.

A boy at the school committed suicide.

Students tried to stop a friend from having an abortion.

A girl struggled with the effects of being molested.

While the impact of these emotionally charged events on the students varied widely, each eroded a student's sense of worth, confidence and security, and disrupted their attention and motivation.

Because students volunteered this information, I believe that the stories are true and represent only the tip of the iceberg. Linked to growing evidence of student anxiety and anger being expressed as violence on U.S. campuses and with the lyrics of the music they choose, I must believe that my school is little different from the rest.

How am I to effectively teach students who have such urgent personal needs? What is the best way for me to help students become happy, productive and knowledgeable citizens? How can I reconcile the differences between what students need and the insufficient, myopic provisions of the standards-based education dictated by the government?

I ask that each of us reexamine our perspectives and priorities for educating students. Children are fragile resources, not miniature adults. They need considerable nurturing and care.

It is time to aggressively push our political representatives and school administrators to reexamine testing programs. We must insist that they furnish schools with funding and strategies that provide students with guidance in all areas of their development. In time, increasing numbers of students will leave school able to cope with the complexities of the real world and prosper as self-confident, happy and fully functional human beings.

Postscript: This year, my school district is requiring teachers to use three more days of instruction to administer newly mandated tests. These are above and beyond high school exit exams and the multiday California standards exams already being administered.

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