If you have ever been around an education major or teacher trying to plan lessons, you will hear them talk about the “standards.” Every lesson they ever make has to match up with the standards. Teachers are graded, and sometimes paid in merit pay, depending on how well their students pass their standardized tests. These tests are matched with the standards. Basically, students are required to learn the content required by the standards at their grade level. Individual states used to have different standards until the Common Core came onto the education scene. The Common Core is national standards that states are enacting instead of their own standards to ensure that all students in America are learning (and testing) on the same standards. The hope is that all students in America, from the top corner of Alaska, to Key West, are learning the same content in their grade levels (the same curriculum).
What started this standards movement? The publication A Nation at Risk in 1983 stressed the importance of standards in education because American students were getting a lesser quality of education than students in other developed, modernized countries. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was created by President Johnson during his War on Poverty to reduce the achievement gap between the rich and the poor, and was the first step in requiring students to take standardized tests. The Clinton Administration changed the Act of 1965, requiring that schools who recieved funding for high poverty schools in Title 1 test students in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12 in math and reading. President’s Bush’s No Child Left Behind (2001) legislation continued this movement. Standards were enacted to provide a measure of what students should be learning at each grade level. Standardized tests measured if students were learning the content required by the standards. These tests were taken every two years in 4th and 8th grade reading and math. No Child Left Behind also required schools to test children in science in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12, in addition to the tests in math and reading during these same grades. This testing does not include state or schoolwide academic achievement tests.
Students are evaluated in school based on their scores on standardized tests. Educators can use these scores to determine if students should be retained, whether students qualify for special services, etc. In other worse, a student’s academic future can be determined based off their scores on standardized tests. In this way, standardized tests become high stakes tests.
So what we have is an education system where teachers have to teach standards, so their students measure up to other children around the world. Students take standardized tests each year to see if they learned the required material. If a teacher’s performance is not sufficient, their pay can be docked, or they can be put on probation (where they have a certain amount of time to increase their students’ test scores). Teachers have to be “highly qualified” to teach their subject area. Schools are assessed annually on their student’s achievement, and must bring their students’ academic achievement up to a “proficient” level. Every year, schools make yearly progress with their students’ scores. If schools that receive Title 1 funding fail to do so three years in a row, they are provided with technical assistance and students can go to other public schools. High-stakes testing thus has consequences not only for students, but also for schools.
In this way, education has radically changed over the past thirty years. Teacher preparation programs are much more rigorous to ensure teacher candidates are prepared to teach the standards at a sufficient, or exemplary, level. Students are sometimes judged more on test scores than anything else. If teachers and schools are not able to bring their students’ scores up to a proficient level, there are severe consequences.
So, what does this actually mean in real life? What do teachers do to ensure that their students get high test scores?
An area of great debate is “teaching to the test.” This involves taking out material and activities from thecurriculum that does not teach to the standards. This may include field trips, group projects, special school events (parties for example), and hands-on projects in math and science. Do you remember school science projects like the baking soda volcano? Or making a cell in biology? That might not happen today based on the standards movement. It takes too much time, and there’s too much material for a teacher to cover in a given year. Although it is fun, and students learn a lot from it, it’s quicker, easier, and cheaper to print off a worksheet from the internet and copy it thirty times from the teacher’s lounge to make a class set. A teacher then has to give a twenty minute lecture on how to do a problem, and then give the worksheet out to students to see if they understand the concept. There are many worksheets on the internet that will do the same job of teaching students that science lesson in twenty minutes instead of a science project involving multiple school days.
The problem is, students don’t really understand the material. They’re just memorizing the answers from the worksheet, or the formula to get the answer if the teacher is lucky. They don’t understand why 3+9=12. They just know that it equals 12. Students are not getting the hands-on exposure they need through manipulatives to understand the concepts behind the simple addition problem, or division problem, or balancing the chemical equation. Students cannot reason through the problem. They just plug the numbers into a formula to get the right answer. Students don’t use higher-level thinking skills in the curriculum. They can’t think through a problem to come up with the right answer. Also, these kinds of activities don’t engage students. Students aren’t interested in school when they just do worksheets all the time. This can lead to higher dropout rates, student apathy, and decreased educational gains.
I was an elementary education major before I dramatically changed my degree. I did one major research paper on standards and standardized testing, and I also worked with many classrooms that were affected by standardized testing. The effects were astounding, shocking, and disillusioning. I saw classrooms where all the students did for about six hours each school day was complete worksheets. There was nothing creative in the classroom, except for maybe a coloring activity during the last half hour of class on Friday. Students were not interested in school. Some even hated it. The teachers just seemed to look at their students like a test score, not really caring about their students.
The teachers seemed to dislike the lowest achieving students in the class, including those in special education, because these students were bringing down the classes’ overall test scores. The education department pushed creativity in the classroom, and yet there were no examples of this in reality. When I tried to bring creativity into the classroom, I was either put down, or I received disinterest. The push was to print off a worksheet for the lesson. The experience changed my perspective of education for the worse. It made me realize that my ideal image of education was not the reality. I remembered my favorite teachers in elementary school that tried to make school interesting for their students. I didn’t see any of that when I was an education major. As I said, it was disillusioning.
The realities of education that I saw today are partly because of the standards movement. America enacted standards because our education system is slipping compared to other modernized countries. But is this really the way that we want our education system to be? Do we really want students to just complete worksheets and memorize answers or formulas for the test? Do we want our child’s educational future to be determined by a test score? Many times, that is what education comes down to today. While the reason for enacting standards is noble, the reality of it can be frightening.
© Amy Burney, Amy’s Fantastical Writings