Published on Sunday, December 23, 2001 in the St Paul Pioneer Press
President Bush Plays Scrooge to Our Nation's Schoolchildren
by Barbara Miner
Just in time for the holiday season, President Bush is due to sign a landmark education bill that would deliver the equivalent of a lump of coal to our schools.
Across the country, urban and low-income schools are in dire need of reforms such as updated facilities, improved teacher training and smaller class sizes. What is Bush's response? More tests.
When he unveiled his plan a year ago, Bush dubbed his proposal "No Child Left Behind." A more apt description would be "No Child Left Untested."
The heart of Bush's plan calls for federally mandated annual testing of all schoolchildren in grades three to eight in reading and math. If schools fail to improve, the Bush plan threatens to reduce government aid -- sort of like threatening to withhold antibiotics from children who can't bring down their own fevers.
Bush has shrewdly wrapped his proposal in the mantle of "accountability." But there are critical flaws with Bush's testing agenda and other similar proposals sweeping the country.
First, the testing craze dumbs down the curriculum. Standardized testing promotes rote memorization and reduces education to a filling in of bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. Such an approach is a disservice in this age of the Internet, when children need to access and evaluate information, not remember random facts or hone their guessing skills.
Second, standardized testing disproportionately harms students of color and poor students. The reasons are complex but the facts are unavoidable. Students of color, on average, score about 10 percent lower on standardized tests, regardless of the type of test, whether it is an IQ test, norm-referenced or proficiency test, according to studies by researcher Harold Berlak.
Educators familiar with standardized testing often refer to "the Volvo effect" -- schools that tend to have the highest scores on standardized tests are ones where the parking lots are filled with Volvos and other expensive cars, in other words, the most middle-class, affluent schools.
Third, standardized tests draw attention away from more important reforms. Students in the United States already take more standardized tests than kids in any other industrialized country. We don't need yet another measure of failure. We need to address the causes of that failure.
Bush needs to ensure that every child has a fully qualified teacher. Studies consistently show that good teachers are essential to successful classrooms. Bush should also address the savage inequalities in school funding. The United States is the richest country in the world, yet we fail to provide sufficient money to all of our schools. As author Jonathan Kozol has documented, urban districts routinely receive thousands of dollars less per pupil than their affluent suburban counterparts.
This holiday season, let's play Santa, not Scrooge, to our schoolchildren. Let's give them adequate resources and meaningful school reform that goes beyond more tests.
Miner is managing editor of Rethinking Schools, an education-reform journal based in Milwaukee.
© 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press