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The Alaska Dispatch

Federal Law Turns Nation’s Public Schools into 'No-Think Zones'

Alyssa Roy

DILLINGHAM-In January 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law by President George W. Bush. This federal mandate enforces standards-based education reform centered on high student academic standards. So far so good.

Unfortunately, these standards are measured by standardized testing, which consist of a series of questions (often multiple-choice) generated for entire groups of students. Educational officials estimate that 100 million or more of these tests are administered to students across the United Sates every year.

NCLB requires that every child's public school academic performance from grades 3rd through 12th be measured by standardized tests. These mandates place enormous pressure on teachers to raise test scores. As a result, the academic curriculum in schools nationwide has largely shifted primarily to the skills being measured on these standardized tests.

As a result, I believe public schools are neglecting many of the time-honored learning experiences long considered staples of a well-educated person. In their place comes so-called "education" presented in a way many people believe harms, rather than helps, true student learning. Fortunately, alternatives to the homogenization of standardized testing to measure learning are gaining support among educators across the United States, but NCLB is little help.

Most standardized tests typically focus only on reading, writing, and mathematical skills; consequently, these areas receive special attention in public schools. In 2007, for example, 62 percent of schools in the United States reported increased class time spent on English language arts and math, with 72 percent of schools cutting back on time spent on science, social studies, art, music, and physical education, according to the Center on Educational Policy in Washington, DC. With English and math becoming public schools' main curricular focus in recent years, this narrow approach has acquired a new name. It called "teaching to the test."

Unfortunately, "teaching to the test" does not simply focus on tested subject areas; in fact, widespread "drilling" of students has sprouted in classrooms nationwide that focus on the types of questions students will face on these standardized tests. Because the reasons behind the answers are not explored, this is fake "learning."

True learning explores problems or questions from different angles, probes for possible solutions, and determines an answer with a much more thorough understanding of why a particular solution to a real problem may be correct. "Teaching to the test," on the other hand, simply gives "correct" answers to students who are expected simply to memorize them in an effort to increase overall test scores, not true learning.

What effect does this have on students? Obviously, few people would believe this kind of preparation bodes well for a child's cognitive development, but not enough realize that it may, in fact, do more damage than realized, more bad than good.


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Children develop cognitively by learning how to solve problems. Memorizing facts and information on how to take a test does not help the child learn to solve problems. It is disabling their ability to think holistically. It isolates the two hemispheres of the brain, giving the left hemisphere-the side of the brain that processes information logically, sequentially, and linearly-greater attention. The right hemisphere of the brain appreciates beauty, thinks critically, is creative, and processes complex reasoning.

A fully developed brain uses both sides of the brain simultaneously. When both hemispheres are used together, a person can think logically about a problem while advancing toward a creative solution. They can see the steps that must be taken to complete a project, but they can also see the whole picture.

When teachers teach to the test, students use only the left hemisphere of the brain. Sadly, America is in danger of raising children unable to integrate their thinking for the single-minded sake of a single, standardized test.

With standardized testing on the rise, educators and others have been considering alternative forms of assessment. Two candidates lead the pack, "portfolio" assessment and "authentic" assessment.

In portfolio assessment, a teacher gathers samples of student work throughout the year, so student progress is documented, rather than depending solely on simple test scores for assessment. In authentic assessment, teachers present students with real-world problems directly related to current lessons. For example, if students are learning about graphing, they may be asked to select a stock and then track the stock's changes over a set period of time on a data sheet or graph.

Students are asked to work collaboratively in search of viable solution to real-life problems, an approach advocated by Jon Mueller, a psychology professor in Illinois who consults with K-12 educators and school districts to develop more realistic student assessments and learning standards. Far from standardized, multiple-choice tests, these types of assessment promote problem solving and learning through real-life experience.

Standardized testing has taken control of our public school system nationwide in the way teachers are now forced to "teach" how students should think-or not think, actually. It is time for America to explore other options that genuinely encourage comprehensive learning in a wide array of subjects. America's outrageous obsession with testing has spiraled out of control. The children of America are being let down.

It is time that schools focus on learning, not silly test results.

Alyssa Roy is a home-schooled high school student in Dillingham. She wrote this piece in a college-level writing class distance-delivered from Chukchi College, a Kotzebue branch of the University of Alaska. This piece is distributed by Chukchi News and Information Service, a national award-winning cultural journalism project.

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