I would like to say a little bit about the controversy swirling, swirling, swirling around mandated state testing.
My student teaching school began its life exempt from the state tests because it is known as a "portfolio school." Instead of passing the tests to graduate, seniors compile collections of their work in each of six subject areas: math, science, English, history, art, and foreign language. They present their work to three or more teachers, who ask the student questions. The students also have to participate in "roundtables," in which they discuss and debate with other students on various topics.
Some of these pieces of work seem fine to me. I like the idea of structured debates (and by structured I mean debates where swearing, yelling, and standing up is discouraged), because one will encounter that type of situation in college. Also, I think something like a portfolio could help a child see how far he/she has come since ninth grade (hopefully it farther than the number of yards the Vikings have been getting in recent games) and provide a sense of closure or accomplishment.
However, there are a couple dangerous loopholes to this system. Many of the kids really do not have the skills they should have to graduate from high school and, hopefully, go on to college. These gaps show up when you test them, but they are able to hide them or downplay their significance in a portfolio of work. Ignoring these weaknesses only hurts the child in the long run.
Not only does this system allow a child to slip through lacking what he/she needs in the future, it lets the school get away with the fact that they haven't given him/her those skills. At my student teaching school, and at many schools, everyone hates the state standards. The tests are evil demons that are infecting the world with their correct answers and muliple choice bubble charts. The other major objection is that teaching what the state demands takes away from other types of lessons, and can pretty much dictate the entire curriculum.
Here's the thing. In the education business, we are thinking only about the period in a child's life from kindergarten through twelfth grade. We want to do the best job we can, but after that, we're off the hook. But the state has to worry about people their whole dang lives. Politicians are held responsible for people's unemployment, poverty, housing, health care, etc etc. So the state wants high schools turning out kids who have real skills so that they can fill the demands of the current labor market, keep up with the changing economy, be able to afford housing, be able to take care of their families, afford preventative health care, etc. These are major, major interests for the state. Schools are uniquely placed to be able to vault kids out of an impoverished background into the kind of self-sufficiency that makes things easier for government and better for society.
In education, we get too caught up with the here and now. We see these kids every day, and we care about them. They aren't cogs in the education machine to us, they are living, breathing, fun, moody, obnoxious children. So it's hard to be objective with them. It's hard to think like the state does. We not only want to educate them, we want to enrich their lives. We want them to really understand what it means for an object to have torque, not just to know how to calculate for it. We care about their character development, and their happiness, and how much they like us as teachers. Worst of all, we want to make a difference.
Idealism, and love for the kids, and really actually caring can, paradoxically, doom a child. We, who know the kid, don't want to see him struggle and fail. We don't want to see him angry at us, we don't want to see his mean streak or his anti-authoritarianism. So we don't push him in the ways that will elicit strong emotions. We don't make him take tests, we play to his strengths, we shy away from his weaknesses, we let him be. When the state, who doesn't know him, tries to come in and force us (and him) to see what he can really do, we are angry. "But they don't know him," we think. He can't do any math, and his literacy skills are weak, but he is so good at X. And plus, they don't know his background.
But in this case, and it's a rare one, the government seems to be right. It's not the here and now that we should be worried about. Kids are the short-sighted ones, but we cannot be. We have to think longer-term. We should not be concerned with his three or four years with us, but his life. We have to evaluate what he needs to do to pass those tests, to have those skills, and then ask, plead, force, or cajole him into doing it. Maybe he'll hate us. And he might even be driven to another school. But he might not. He might stay, hate us, struggle under our all-knowing thumb, be in the principal's office every week, fail before he succeeds, etc. But in the end he might just pass those tests and come out a goddam educated person. And maybe he'll realize what happened and maybe not. But we will have done our job in society, which is to produce people who have skills for college and jobs and life.
One common objection to all this is that handing the kid academic skills without, like, character education or cooperative skills means he'll be some kind of asocial smart freak who can't interact with others. However, I don't really think schools are the most effective transmitters of social or citizenship skills. Those things come from families, clubs, and sports teams. Schools can't be responsible for everything. That they sort of are held responsible for everything is how they duck out of doing their real job: educating. Secondly, I think a guy who has enough skills to get through college and find a good job is going to be a better citizen anyway than someone who was taught through cooperative learning but wasn't able to graduate from high school, and now works as a cashier. Most likely that guy does not like his society very much, and doesn't really want to be a good citizen. I, for one, don't blame him. We failed.
The fact is that 98% of kids at good magnet schools pass the state tests, while like 30% do at a lot of regular high schools. That is shameful and ridiculous. Maybe not everyone will pass the first time, and magnet schools will always have an advantage. But they shouldn't have a 60+% advantage. The kids there aren't that smart. The fact is, they are expected to pass those tests, they are taught so they have the skills to, and they do.
Now, at my school, the kids have to take part of the state tests, but not all. However, I think they are in political hot water because of the renewal of the standards movement both at the state and national levels. I hate to say that George Bush is in the right ballpark on anything, so I will give this one to the bill's cosponsor (I think) Ted Kennedy. Accountability for schools means skills for kids. That's good, people.