Sen. Alexander, No Child Left Behind’s High Stakes Tests Narrow the Curriculum

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Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is now chair of the education committee in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension committee, and has officially opened the door to reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB, also known as the ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). He’s seeking emails and letters talking about testing and accountability to supplement the hearing held on January 21, 2015, on this subject; you can email him directly at FixingNCLB@help.senate.gov. Previously President Obama had called for reauthorization of the law since his inauguration in his first term. Reauthorization of the law is badly overdue.

With both the Left and the Right upset about the overtesting of children in the nation’s public schools, various individuals and teacher groups have decided to launch a letter-writing campaign to let the Senator know how much time, energy, and money is wasted in the useless and punitive standardized testing of students K-12.

This guest post is by a teacher, P. Smith, who is currently based in Southern California. (Neither  teacher nor students are pictured.) It’s part of our Voices From the Classroom series.

Students visiting one of the Museum's exhibits

Students visiting one of the Museum’s exhibits (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Senate Chair Alexander,

I am a teacher at a socio-economically disadvantaged mega-public high school in Southern CA and I can personally speak to the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred since the federal government began putting more emphasis on high stakes standardized tests.

At my high school, we’ve cut classes in the arts and the industrial arts — classes that help make students college and career ready. These classes, though popular and engaging, are now viewed by many administrators as less important than the so-called academic classes because of a narrow interpretation that purports that exposure to the arts is less likely to create a direct link to improving the outcome of the tests. Students at the poorer schools in my district have less access to these classes than those who reside in wealthier neighborhoods — even though research shows that they are extremely valuable to the overall intellectual development of all students — rich or poor. It’s all a giant mistake, not only is the premise unfounded by educational research, but it actually disputes the original intention of NCLB that clearly identified the arts as academic subjects.

The over-emphasis on drill and kill is not entirely reserved for students who attend schools that traditionally post lower scores, but those campuses that are struggling to meet target goals — those campuses with larger numbers of poor, minority students and English language learners — are certainly more likely to be devoted to the practice of rote learning in a desperate, ‘last-ditch’ effort to ‘raise those scores’. Research shows that context-embedded courses like the arts actually promote language acquisition, foster interest and encourage attendance. What’s happened is that standardized testing has not leveled the playing field, rather they have been used as a tool to punish poorer students with a less enriching curriculum, depriving them of the rich experiences that their wealthier peers are more likely to receive.

The longitudinal studies are complete: statistically, the scores correlate to the economic status of students. The answers to equity and accountability are to fund the instruction in these poorer schools by lowering the class sizes and providing more opportunities within each student’s instructional school day.

Please dismantle this federal program that is lining the pockets of the corporate profiteers while it is diminishing opportunities for our most deserving populations. We are not going to build the Great Society by depriving our poorest students of equal opportunities — after a decade or so, the federally-mandated standardized testing regimen is doing precisely that.

Sincerely,

P. Smith

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