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Posted at 03:57 PM ET, 06/03/2011

5th grader’s essay: High-stakes tests lead to stress, not learning

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One voice given short shrift in the loud (and unfortunately increasingly shrill) education debate is that of kids. You know, the people who actually have to take all the standardized tests that are (again, unfortunately) at the center of modern school reform.

With the blogosphere screaming with claims by adults that standardized test-based reform is improving student achievement, here is the work of a child who tells a different story. It’s important to listen.

This was written by Julia Skinner-Grant, 11, a fifth grader at Chevy Chase Elementary School in Montgomery Couny. Julia, a special education student in the highly gifted center, wrote this persuasive essay for a school assignment.

She’s far more persuasive than a lot of adults on the subject.

By Julia Skinner-Grant

A good education is the key that opens the door to success in life. When children learn early on and discover their passions then their world, our world, just keeps getting better. Yet, how will we get better if all we teach our students is what has already been discovered? How will our future get better if we educate kids about how to remember random facts? How will No Child Left Behind help America’s future?

In 2002 President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. The purpose of this law was to narrow achievement gaps between students, since many lower income students were not performing well on standardized tests and didn’t have basic reading or writing skills. So No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”) is a system where testing is emphasized throughout the public school system in the United States. Now the nation’s teachers are given so much focus on testing requirements that classrooms hardly manage time for intellectual discussions, where students actually learn how to become lawyers, doctors and scientists. Why schools focused on the test is because NCLB will fire teachers if students don’t attain a certain score on the test. Principals are judged by how the students do on tests that test their ability to memorize random facts. If their students do well their school and they get more money; if their students do poorly they get fired.

I believe that NCLB must be revised to fit the ideal education system of students, teachers, parents and principals. In order to do well in the 21st Century, America must teach its children how to problem solve. That is why we need an education system that:

a) enables creativity and encourages students to think

b) creates less stress for everyone and

c) a system for the future, which gives students a voice, and tests the necessary skills to be successful in life.

Though learning and expanding your knowledge may seem like the right thing to do, expanding your ability to think and problem solve independently and understand instead of memorize word for word is one of the traits that gives people the ability to be successful in life. Yet America has created an education system (NCLB) that focuses on memorization of what has already been discovered and forgets all about creativity and innovation and the future. Take Benjamin Franklin for example. He left school at the age of ten. And he managed to go on to be a brilliant inventor, writer, businessman and politician. Since standardized testing was not around back then he had more time and freedom to use his own imagination to come up with technology for the future. He invented the lightning rod, which we still use today to protect our houses and our lives from Mother Nature’s destructive powers. Would standardized testing have provided him with the information to save lives, or would experimenting, predicting and discovering enable him to create something that we still use today?

Stress, stress, stress. Back in the 18th century life may have seemed pretty stressful. Yet, today’s society contains far more stress for everyone, including children. Stress is typically caused by anxiety due to an overload of tasks to be completed or an important upcoming event. Testing creates significant stress for students, teachers and parents. No Child Left Behind takes the stress of testing and assumes that the more students are prepared for testing the less anxious they will be. But what this actually does is lead students to believe that this test is far more important to their future than it actually is, since teachers, principals and parents are all busy trying to help a student for a test that will judge them. Now the student feels as if they will let all these people down if they don’t do well on the test and eventually this stress for everybody leads to the student becoming so emotional and anxious that they don’t even have the ability to function properly for the test that they have been worrying about. Eliminating high stakes testing will reduce stress for everybody: students, teachers, principals and parents. I am not opposed entirely to testing though. It is critical to record students’ growth, yet I believe it must be recorded in a different way. A way that gets everyone excited. Tests need to be more creative and they need to test the creativity that is essential for an individual to be successful in the 21st century.

Education is our life and it’s your future too. Then why not preserve it, conserve it and make it the best it can be. The one person who knows a student’s needs the best is the student. But No Child Left Behind was not created by a student. It was written by a bunch of politicians. NCLB requires absolutely no funding for gifted education so all students are only being taught to a basic minimum requirement. Federal funding for gifted education has gone down by a third during the first five years since NCLB was passed. The politicians who wrote NCLB should have at least consulted a few students before putting the law into effect. I believe that if written by students, NCLB would guarantee an education fit for all students above, below and at grade level and that actually taught in an exciting way for all students.

A good education is the key to success in life. If we want to give all children a chance at success we need to give them a chance to learn in meaningful ways. That means reducing stress, especially stress caused by testing that places enormous pressure on students and teachers and forces teachers to teach to tests rather than focus on student skills and needs. Learning and school should be fun and engaging, memorizing facts and filling out worksheets don’t teach students any necessary skills for success. Let students help design their education and don’t forcefully impose standardized testing. We can’t open the door for students but we can at least give them the key.

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