Kentucky voices: Move beyond test mania; bring sanity back into schools

Marty  Solomon, a  retired University of Kentucky professor, can be reached at mbsolomon@aol.com.
Marty Solomon, a retired University of Kentucky professor, can be reached at mbsolomon@aol.com.

It's time to wake up and stop the nonsense. Because schools and teachers are judged by student test scores, the results have become the almighty goal, or even the almighty god. Not education, not learning, not problem solving — only the score on the annual high-stakes test really matters.

This is a shame because it has crowded out so many important parts of a well-rounded education. Vital subjects such as civics, so important to prepare informed voters, have been demoted in importance to allow more time to teach the onerous annual test. Art and music, so significant in contributing to a quality life, have lost their once highly valued priority. Some schools have even substituted test preparation for recess, adding to the obesity problem. Kids sometimes have only 10 or 15 minutes to gulp down lunch.

Dramatic changes can allow delving into a wide variety of subjects that are fun and fulfilling to students and teachers. That is plainly not what we have today. Politicians and educational leaders think it is more important to rank schools than to provide an exciting educational experience. How have school systems become so wrong-headed?

This entire testing mania came about because children from poverty were not succeeding in school as well as middle-class children. So, without research or analysis, politicians decided that the problem was teachers. They decided that if we test the children and publish the scores, it will shame teachers into doing a better job and prompt the public to demand better.

For a decade now we have tried it, and it hasn't worked. The gap between kids from poverty and the middle class remains, but the aftermath has been disastrous. Some children go into spasms at test times. Teachers are traumatized. And some school officials have been so threatened that they cheat.

Kids may become better test-takers under this scheme, but they will be less educated. Children have been sheltered from literature and dreaming by being forced to concentrate on which bubbles to fill in, instead of problem solving and mind-expanding activities.

Scientific studies show that children learn vast amounts from their parents and peers before they ever enter school. Middle-class children enter the first grade most often knowing letters, numbers, even words. Many can read and perform elementary arithmetic.

But it is rare that kids from poverty can do the same. So these unfortunate children begin school far behind. Most never catch up because as they progress, their peers do as well. So the academic gap that existed when they entered school remains throughout their academic careers.

By the way, when did we forget the role of personal responsibility? When did we forget that children can work hard or not and parents can be involved or not and they have a significant influence on academic success?

When did we get the notion that schools are factories where teachers simply open up brains with a can opener and pour in knowledge?

Among dozens of needed changes, three can make a tremendous difference.

First, while annual tests should not be eliminated, neither schools nor teachers should be graded by the scores. This is because schools with high percentages of children from poverty will, almost always, score lower. The ranking of a school usually ranks the degree of poverty of the students. Also, we do not know how hard the children work to succeed so we can't penalize teachers where kids refuse to expend effort.

Second, if children are far behind when they enter first grade, suggest to the parents that the youngsters be given a slot in an "extra help" school, where the school day is 9 or 10 hours long in order to help them catch up. Studies show that this can do wonders.

Finally, keep records on the percentage of parents that show up for parent-teacher meetings and publish that data because we all know that parental involvement can be a key to academic success.

It just might be possible to get back to sanity and quality in our schools.