We need to have a nationwide debate about standardized testing. Not the pseudo-debate that currently surrounds President Obama's minimal reforms to NCLB. Not a discussion about better data management , Arne Duncan-style. America's Moms and Dads need to rethink the whole standards and accountability movement, because our public schools are facing a test-prep overdose that cries out for a parent-driven intervention.
For years bloggers like Susan Ohanion, and organizations like FairTest, have been speaking up about the problems with our nation's test-prep culture, but few parents have really been listening. We've been too busy encouraging our kids to finish their homework and study for the next test. Here in Virginia, parents and teachers constantly complain about the poor quality of our state's Standard of Learning tests (SOLs), which include exams in social studies, English and math from grade three forward, science exams in the fifth grade and high school, and now a new high school test in personal finance and economics. In theory, the content behind the tests seems reasonable. In practice, kids spend enormous time memorizing facts for multiple choice tests, and less time writing, reading, forming ideas and enjoying hands-on learning. As one teacher wrote to me in a recent email: "Every teacher I know thinks that the SOLs are the worst thing that has happened to education in a zillion years!!!"
So it's time for more of America's parents, who have the greatest personal stake in this issue, to step up and ask loudly and publicly-what's good about our nation's current approach toward standardized testing, and what isn't working at all? Most parents and teachers agree that some standardized testing is an inevitable and potentially useful part of public education. But are today's high school graduates who have grown up in a test-prep culture better prepared for their futures than those who graduated thirty years ago? Do higher test scores mean more learning? Is the standards and accountability movement beneficial for some schools, and harmful to others?
Dianne Ravitch has tried to put the brakes on the testing movement's runaway train with her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, and in upcoming posts I will discuss her work. But in the meantime I want to talk about how standardized testing is driving more parents towards homeschooling.
Last week I received an email from a mom in Cincinnati who is considering homeschooling her son for one or two years. Her reasons are varied, but at the top of her list is the desire to escape a curriculum geared toward multiple choice tests, that she fears is killing her son's enthusiasm for learning. I sympathized with her message, because one of the chief reasons I homeschooled my daughter, Julia, for the fifth grade was to escape Virginia's testing regimen. In our school district, fifth graders spend much of their year preparing for tests in history, science, reading, writing and math. The result is nine months of boredom and homework overload. In my new book, Love in a Time of Homeschooling, I write about how Julia and I tried to craft an ideal year of learning for her fifth grade year, which included a lot of writing-across-the-curriculum, music, art and field trips, as well as plenty of math and hands-on science. Though we had our share of bad moments, as well as good, we both agree that homeschooling was a great alternative to a test-heavy year of public education.
I'll share some excerpts from my book as I write about standardized testing over the next few weeks, but for now I want to invite readers to share their opinions. How does your state handle standardized testing? Do you think the testing is improving the quality of your kids' educations? Should we have national standards, instead of a state-by-state patchwork? Or should we cut back drastically on the testing? Should teacher pay and school accreditation be tied to test scores? And if you don't like the testing, what are you doing about it?
These questions aren't for public school parents alone. All Americans have a stake in what's being taught in our nation's public schools-though I should stress that the purpose of the present discussion is not to attack public education, but to ask what sort of approach should be taken on the matter of standardized testing.
I, for one, plan to start my own crusade of the pen, writing to newspapers and legislators and Virginia Board of Education members. This is in addition to the volunteer work I can do at my school, and the teaching I can do of my own children. If anyone has recommendations for books, blogs, organizations, etc. that I should check out, I'm all ears. Each of us has to start somewhere, and I'll keep you posted on how it goes for me.