I've been hearing the term "high-stakes testing" for several years, but my brain had just filed it away with a ton of other education jargon. Made little sense. Had little relevance.
Then I read about the Regents math test, and I got it. And just retched.
One of our children --- now grown and doing well in a management position, with a University of Rochester bachelor's and master's degree under his belt --- would probably have flunked that test. He didn't "test well." Had he been a senior in high school this year, he, like many other students, would have walked away from that test in tears.
No matter how well he had done in his class work during his years in high school, his score on the math test could have kept him from graduating.
Students who failed the test this year lived through days of torture, as their school districts begged State Education Commissioner Richard Mills to throw out the test. At first Mills insisted that there was nothing wrong with the test. So many students failed it, though, that he had to back down. Students who met all other graduation requirements were permitted to get their diploma.
For a high-school student, graduation night is incredibly important. It would be bad enough to be shut out if you had failed many of your classes. But at least you'd see it coming.
This year, though, thousands of students were told near the end of the year that they wouldn't graduate --- because of their score on that one test.
Now Mills and his staff will analyze the test to see what went wrong. That's a relief. But this is hardly a time to celebrate; "high-stakes testing" is hideous. And fixing this particular test doesn't fix a thing.
I'm more conservative about testing than many critics of standardized tests. I think there has to be a clear, understandable way to assess students' progress, and I think there are certain standards against which you can match students' knowledge. I like letter grades on report cards.
I am also the mother of three very different children, each with their own talents and strengths, each with their own way of learning. The child with the highest grades in school and the highest SAT scores took the longest to pass her driver's test. Two children are artistic, and they are putting that talent (and their father's genes) into good use in rewarding careers. The artistic talent of the third, like that of his mother, maxes out at drawing stick figures. He makes a living analyzing things like economic and marketing data.
All three graduated from Rochester's Monroe High School, with a high-quality education. All three had teachers who recognized their strengths and weaknesses. The teachers had high expectations --- and great empathy. They understood the stresses young people experience.
Both qualities are crucial. It does students great harm to dumb down an education, and to pretend that students have learned something when they have not. But it also does students great harm when we adopt a one-size-fits-all philosophy about education. And it is absurd to think that a single test can tell us what a student has learned --- and whether that student should graduate from high school.
Richard Mills' attitude, of course, reflects a growing conviction in the US: that there's a simple way to solve the problems of our schools. Just crack the whip.
Whip-cracking can't fix American education. It can hurt students, and discourage teachers.
My hunch about the high-stakes-test enthusiasts: As children, they did really well at test-taking. And as adults, they either haven't had teenagers or have forgotten how wonderfully different, and vulnerable, teenagers can be.
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