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Is High-Stakes Testing Really the Answer?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

You said that introducing high-stakes testing in kindergarten "appears to have produced significant gains in reading and math achievement for students in this age group." ["The Pressure Is On, and the Kids Suffer in Kindergarten," March 19].

As a 33-year veteran of an urban school district, I think it is necessary to point out that high-stakes testing, translated into real-world practice, has completely taken over the instructional methods used by public schools. Passing a quantitative test requires that facts be given precedence over reflection, analysis and creativity, because facts are easier to measure.

Teachers and schools have become so test-driven that even though we know what type of teaching methods foster creative skills, we have no time to strengthen these practices because we are racing through a state curriculum guide that dictates the content that will be on the test.

Many of today's students are not interested in knowing what is not on the test. Teachers who have been in this business a while know what can go wrong with this notion of using high-stakes tests to determine success. Virginia has had the Standard of Learning tests since 1998, and so we have seen the long-term effects of a "good idea" that focuses on only part of the story in a child's overall education.

Tests have always existed, and they are valid and necessary, but many of our children are not able to read, write or compute. We need more than just high-stakes testing. We also need time -- time to collaborate with other teachers who are role models and who can share their successful real-world practices; time to develop instruction that encourages and demands more than just choosing a, b, c or d and helps strengthen curiosity, reflection and flexibility; and, of course, the time to develop relationships with our students, communities and parents or guardians.

Patricia J. Lewis

Alexandria

You are so right that our students need more time. But your other points to me seem divorced from the reality I see in classrooms. The instructional methods I observe are much better than the way I was taught as a child -- more varied, more imaginative, with more writing and more talking by students. If you or any reader can describe something that they have actually seen in a classroom that shows testing has, as you say, "completely taken over" instructional methods, I will publish your letter.

Dear Extra Credit:

My daughter is extremely bright and was an early reader. She loved kindergarten. When she started first grade, she struggled with the writing -- not what to write, but with the actual writing. She was frustrated because, as much as she tried, her handwriting was messy, and she couldn't make her letters neat enough to fit into the boxes provided for the answers. She began to dislike school.

When I mentioned to her pediatrician that she was having trouble with her fine-motor skills, he said it was because she was not supposed to be able to do that yet and that schools were pushing kids to do things they were not ready for physically. He told me that he'd seen a big increase in the treatment of children for depression and anxiety, something he attributed to the pressures at school.

My son is in an accelerated second-grade math class. I've been reading about how kids who are pushed to take algebra too early do not grasp all of the concepts needed for higher math. My son is on path to take algebra early, so I asked his teacher. She agreed that it was a big problem and that it would be a tough decision for me when the time came, whether to let him take algebra so early.

Every day, my kids (both in elementary school) bring home worksheet after worksheet; it seems to be all they do all day. Yes, that could have something to do with the quality of the teachers. But I think it has a lot to do with the curriculum. The new Maryland secretary of education said that we need longer school years and days, because kids have only one chance at their education, and we are falling behind countries such as Japan. You know what? Kids have only one chance to be kids, too. Can't we let them enjoy it?

Ann Harrington

Rockville

I am willing to let parents like you and me, middle-class folk in Montgomery County, have our kids take it easy. They are already living in a world of words in our homes. The research says they will do fine no matter what kind of elementary school they attend.

But please make sure that our wishes in this matter don't get in the way of the kids two or three years below grade level who don't live in our world and who need the early start that we, almost unconsciously, give our kids. Also, I wouldn't believe what even a doctor told me about anxiety treatment trends unless I had seen the data.

Dear Extra Credit:

Which is better, public school or home education? A home-schooling reader said the answer depended on many factors. She went on to promote embracing the diversity of the human learning experience instead of pitting ourselves against each other.

Yet, it is the very failure to embrace the diversity of human learning that drives parents to home-school their children. It is not likely that seceding from public schools will lead to a civil war, but proponents of religious, private and home schools are secessionists. To separate an entire group from the public system results in depriving public schools of the diversity of those human beings.

Helen Dodson

Olney

You are living in a country founded by people whose European ancestors had come to this continent to separate themselves from the political and religious systems of their homelands. The American value that probably distinguishes us most from other national cultures is our commitment to individualism. Your opinion is as valuable as mine, but I think the home-schoolers are closer to American ideals than you are.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

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