Why students are feeling so testy

DID YOUR KIDS SEEM ESPECIALLY RELIEVED THIS YEAR WHEN THAT FINAL CLAS BELL RANG FOR SUMMER RECESS? The explanation for the heightened level of academic angst may lie at the newly sharpened point of a number two pencil.

Politicians are getting tough on education, and they've decided the quickest way to prove their mettle is to torment school children with standardized tests.

American school children are rightly testy of late. They're stressed out by the battery of standardized achievement tests school administrators are deploying in classrooms across the country. So-called high stakes tests—exams they must pass in order to move on to succeeding grades, graduate from high school, or otherwise determine the course of their entire future—are familiarizing our students with a world of anxiety and despair previously the jittery domain of the hyperstressed Japanese student body.

Standardized testing could serve a useful role as a general barometer of students' academic performance or as a tool to diagnose areas where individual students may require more attention. Unfortunately, those are not the only two forces loosening the avalanche of computer forms.

Politicians, once so determined to "get tough on crime" that the United States now holds a larger inmate population than Ming the Merciless, have discovered a new way to get reelected. They're getting tough on education, and they've decided that the quickest way to prove their mettle is to torment the academic lives of unsuspecting school children with generic, standardized tests that critics say may only prove how well students perform on generic, standardized tests.

Contributing to the new reliance on testing has been a shift in school-reform leadership away from education professionals to "goal oriented" former business executives. These guys may not know a lot about learning, but they do know how to get results. They've decided that the easiest way to chart the "success" of school reform is to follow the numbers disgorged by testing. But rating education strictly by the numbers is the wrong way to measure a process as complex as learning, and teaching kids how to memorize facts and remember dates is an altogether different achievement from teaching them how to make sense out of new ideas and experiences.

The worst aspect of this numbers racket is that pressure on administrators and teachers to demonstrate improvements through higher scores is becoming the "creative" force driving classroom curriculum. Gifted teachers who previously may have explored innovative techniques to reach their kids now devote their limited class time to drills aimed at improving student performance on whatever test looms in their future.

The pressure has been so intense some teachers have even been caught cheating with their students. A lot of the kids are fed up, and sporadic outbreaks of noncompliance—students simply refusing to take the tests or teachers refusing to pass them out—have occurred around the country. Meanwhile the ultimate result of all the drilling and rote learning is that students may score better on tests at the same time their overalleducation is deteriorating.

Testing mania has been partly fueled by the poor performance of U.S. kids in relation to peers in other nations. But education experts say those comparisons are worrying more in perception than in reality. They say that what is really at the heart of the "performance gap" may not be the U.S. education system but a "system" that is profoundly more difficult for politicians to speak to—U.S. poverty.

We ask a lot of the public education system, but all the numbers juggling in the world can't disguise the simple, painful fact that twice as many U.S. school kids per capita are growing up in poverty than in other industrialized countries such as Germany and Japan. The testing obsession may be another in a series of cultural smokescreens thrown up before more taxing—intellectually and fiscally--social dilemmas. Could it be that what might lift our kids' scores most is not another performance test but better nutrition, economic opportunity, and spending in rural and urban areas that is comparable to the public education money thrown into suburban districts?

Maybe that's a question that could make its way into a standardized test for U.S. political leadership.

By Kevin Clarke, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.

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