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Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

The test, and nothing but the test

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I don’t bash public schools. My wife’s a teacher, my children have gotten a great education at these schools, and we’ve been able to solve every major problem that ever arose with a teacher.

That said, I am tired of the emphasis on standardized testing that is continuing to gain traction in schools throughout this nation. I’ll take rigorous teacher credentialing standards because I want the best folks in the classroom. Added professional credentials, of course, must be accompanied by higher pay. And I’ll admit that grading schools based on the outcome of standardized testing is not in and of itself terrible, but when those outcomes become so important that the arts and foreign language are forced to take a back seat, then the system is headed in the wrong direction. Slowly, that is what is happening.

I was reminded of this last week when Central Elementary School celebrated the 10-year anniversary of its A+ arts program. As dignitaries from around Haywood County gathered, students gave a performance and Principal John Sanderson showed a PowerPoint. As Sanderson moved through his discussion of the school’s emphasis on integrating the arts with the standard curriculum, one particular phrase stood out: “We don’t turn this [school] into a test factory,” he said.

Parents, teachers and many students know all too well just what he’s talking about. Right now, as we near the end of the school year, the desire to improve performance on those end-of-grade tests is taking over. In many classrooms students spend hours taking practice tests, learning when to leave answers blank and when to guess, listening to teachers tell them how best to guess on multiple choice questions so that they will have the best statistical chance of improving their score even if they don’t know the answer. This is the kind of instruction some fourth-graders are getting.

Many public school critics, mistakenly, lay the blame for this testing obsession at the feet of the teachers and the administrators. It’s the politicians, however, that have created this problem, and they’ve done so at the behest of a misinformed public. This is the environment we’ve created.

The current school reform plan in North Carolina is the ABCs of Education, and it demands growth each year in the number of students reaching a certain level in reading and math. No matter how high the percentage of children meeting grade level is, it must go up each year. In other words, do better on the standardized tests. Add to these pressures the guidelines of the federal No Child Left Behind program. This plan greatly expanded the federal role in local schools by demanding annual progress by certain groups of students in reading, writing, and math. Again, the only measurement tool are the scores and results from standardized tests.

So how do we as citizens fight this tide? For one, we support schools like Central Elementary by telling politicians and other leaders about its success. That’s what the Parent Teacher Organization at this school decided to do when it planned the celebration for the anniversary of the A+ program. We must demand that our schools turn out productive citizens, not test-takers.

It’s not that Sanderson and the staff are doing anything radically different at Central Elementary. It’s just that they start from a different place, and that necessarily leads to a different journey. Children learn differently, and therefore if a staff integrates different learning approaches — including using song, dance, art and drama — to reinforce classroom lessons, more kids will learn more. It’s a lot more difficult for staff to pull this off, but it also creates a closer working environment for teachers and necessarily demands more involved parents.

And with Sanderson committed to not making the school a “test factory,” the school has succeeded. Test scores have risen despite the fact that Central has the highest number of students in Haywood County that are at-risk as determined by the poverty level of their families.

About a month ago I had the opportunity to spend a little time at Mountain Discovery Charter School in Bryson City. This is also a place where the entire staff starts with a different mission. Their emphasis is on experiential learning, where classroom curriculum is reinforced by hands-on lessons either at the school or on field trips. It’s a less-regimented and highly creative process, but if it’s done right it works.

We all know that public schools must cast a wide net to reach a broad middle group of students and provide them a sound education. Many parents have forsaken their part in the parenting and the educational process, making the job of public schools that much more difficult.

All that is a given. The mistake is thinking that we will improve academic performance of any student by taking away and de-emphasizing instruction in the arts. I’m reminded of this every year when we get a letter thanking our child for remaining in band. Waynesville Middle School band instructor Ralph Caldwell points out that countless studies have shown that students who participate in music education programs do better in school and on tests. It tweaks a different part of the brain.

It seems common sense, but each year it gets harder and harder for students to spend any time in those classes that don’t directly help them with these testing programs. Their schedules are just too full with what are considered the core courses.

One interesting note is that almost all trained educators know this. Here, for instance, is a couple of paragraphs from the state’s preface to the N.C. Standard Course of Study: “For all these reasons and many more, the arts have been an inseparable part of the human journey; indeed, we depend on the arts to carry us toward the fullness of our humanity. We value them for themselves, and because we do, we believe knowing and practicing them is fundamental to the healthy development of children ‘s minds and spirits. That is why, in any civilization — ours included — the arts are inseparable from the very meaning of the term ‘education.’ We know from long experience that no one can claim to be truly educated who lacks basic knowledge and skills in the arts.

“If our civilization is to be both dynamic and nurturing, its success will ultimately depend on how well we develop the capacities of our children, not only to earn a living in our complex world, but to live a life rich in meaning. To achieve this quality of life requires a vital connection to one or more of the arts disciplines, which like any subject, demand discipline and study.”

Maybe it’s spring fever, or perhaps it is just the passing of time. Quite possibly, though, it’s one of those moments when things align themselves and impress upon us a point we had not considered in some time: children need the arts, and our obsession with testing is de-emphasizing this very crucial part of a sound education.

Carry on, Mr. Sanderson.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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