Dianne Ravitch's excellent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, is essential reading for everyone who cares about public schools in America. As one of America's top historians on education, Ravitch has the research to back her strong claims against our country's approach to testing. Equally important, she writes in a style that is accessible to all parents, not just education experts.
When reading her book, I found myself uncomfortable with only one thing. Ravitch states that a key weakness of the No Child Left Behind Act is its focus on English and math. Because of this emphasis on basic skills, many schools throughout America have been shortchanging, or entirely ignoring, the other components of a well-rounded curriculum, such as history, science, foreign languages, art and music. Ravitch is right to insist that all of these subjects are very important, but I wondered: was she implying that NCLB would be stronger if it included more subjects? Should the federal government insist on annual testing in history, science, and other areas?
In theory, that might sound reasonable; in practice it's a nightmare. Take the case of Virginia, my home state. Because NCLB allows each state to develop its own testing regimen, Virginia has used this as an opportunity to impose curricular guidelines on all subjects, from music to chemistry, and to mandate standardized testing in history, science and economics. Teachers frequently complain that the state's required content is not age appropriate. For instance, third graders are asked to memorize abstract economic terms like "capital resources" and "economic specialization. " The eight-year-olds might be able to circle those words on a test, but when you ask them what they mean, the children's comprehension is vague at best. The same problems occur in other subjects. Our fifth grade science teacher, when asked about the SOL terms that her students would need to master by year's end, lamented openly that "I didn't learn most of these terms until high school!"
Virginia's SOLs have had a particularly disheartening effect when it comes to social studies, the state's most heavily tested subject. In grades three through twelve, the history curriculum is geared toward preparation for standardized multiple choice tests, which means that the teachers spend a lot of time drilling facts. This pedagogical approach not only saps the joy from learning history, it also means that students' language skills suffer.
After English, history is the subject that should involve the most reading and writing. In elementary school, children enjoy reading stories about American history and ancient cultures, and they are capable of writing paragraphs, and sometimes full essays, about what they've learned. History should provide a chance to reinforce language arts instruction, (and bring up those NCLB reading test scores). Instead, the need to prepare for multiple choice exams turns history away from writing and creative projects, into a heavy dose of flashcards and fill-in-the-bubble.
So how can we get our children to be enthusiastic about their country's history, and the history of the world, if we are killing the pleasure behind the subject?
I'll continue with this in my next post, but I invite readers to keep sharing their own impressions, positive and negative, of how your states are handling standardized testing and NCLB.