As a university professor who teaches first-year writing courses (often more than one) to incoming freshmen every year, I've seen first-hand the effects of our excessive K-12 focus on testing. While I'm loathe to over-generalize, over the past six years I have noticed a growing tendency among my college freshmen to want simple "yes-or-no," "right-or-wrong" answers.
"Students nowadays can't write," complain many of my colleagues in other disciplines, and when I push those folks to specify what they mean by "can't," I usually end up hearing that students have lousy grammar, or that they "haven't mastered XX citation style" (usually the complainer is only concerned with the citation style associated with his or her field).
But grammar and citation are often the least of my students' problems; what really holds back their writing, I notice, is a tendency to spout hackneyed, pre-set views ("Childhood obesity is a major problem today," "Abortion should/should not be legal because [insert standard talking points here]"), using a stilted five-paragraph format that exists nowhere in the world outside the classroom. When I look closely at student grammar, I may see a few subject/verb agreement errors or misspelled homophones, but what I notice is not error per se so much as lack of complexity. What I'd like to see, and what I try to work on with my students, is more complex sentence structure, more sophistication in vocabulary, punctuation, subordination and organizational structure. But doing that requires more sophistication of thought, which in turn requires a willingness to engage with complexity and ambiguity--and that, I would submit, is what is really missing in much of today's student writing. That, I also blame at least partially on the black-and-white, right-and-wrong approach to learning that has been fostered by NCLB.
"Good" writing is not just "error-free" writing--or writing that conforms to conventions of a particular academic discipline or workplace genre. Standard conventions of any discourse community are relatively easy to learn and to teach, once a newcomer becomes familiarized with a particular domain. What is much harder to learn, and to teach, is the intellectual complexity that characterizes the most compelling writing. Simplistic thinking ("A, B, C or D"?) leads to simplistic writing; complex sentence structure can't occur in the absence of complex ideas. If student writers are to do more than regurgitate standard talking points, they must be willing to wrestle with ambiguity--something to which the standardized testing mentality with its "one right answer" is horribly unsuited.
This is only one of the many ways our students--as well as our teachers, our educational system, and our entire society--have been intellectually shortchanged, not only by NCLB per se but by an entire culture obsessed with testing, standardization, quantification, and instant gratification. (Have you fallen into the trap of blaming today's young people for wanting what they want and, like Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wanting it NOW? Look at the outrageously impatient timelines stipulated by NCLB--which wasn't written by young people. Impatience and desire for instant gratification are not millennial generation problems--they are cultural problems that the millennial generation merely reflects. Faulty cause and effect fallacy, anyone?)
So naturally, I'm happy to hear we are finally starting to steer our educational conversation toward the limits of standardized testing. I fear, however, that "limiting testing to 2% of classroom time," as the current administration proposes, will not be enough to foster the kind of idea-rich, creative, complex educational environment that will best serve not only our children but our society as a whole.
What needs to happen--to borrow a phrase I recently heard from a colleague--is akin to "turning around a battleship." For beyond NCLB, we still face numerous challenges when it comes to building a truly effective educational system. A few that come to mind (consider this a non-exhaustive list, as others may have additional points to suggest):
- We need to remove the ugly profiteering motive from our classrooms. Let's not forget that NCLB wasn't just about "reform," but was about disproportionately lining the pockets of numerous for-profit entities. The short-term greed of a few should never trump the long-term needs of the many.
- We need to stop the national sport of teacher bashing now, and follow the lead of the many cultures who respect teachers as the professionals they are. (And yes, like it or not we do need teacher unions, to look out for teachers' collective interests.)
- We need to address funding discrepancies in our educational system (as Jonathon Kozol pointed out in Savage Inequalities so many years ago).
- We need to redirect our national spending priorities to put education at the forefront.
- We need to revitalize aspects of the curriculum that have been shortchanged in the NCLB era--music, drama, art, shop, home ec, and social studies, to name only a few.
- We need to re-infuse our classrooms with the joy, excitement, and sheer fun of learning and growing, rather than approaching the dissemination and creation of knowledge as though they are the definition of drudgery itself.
- We need to adapt and make more flexible some of the current institutional strictures that dictate how teachers can teach. (Common Core, for instance, while it offers much of value, also straitjackets the teaching of certain subjects with arbitrary regulations like "70% of student reading must be nonfiction.")
- We need to reduce administrative/bureaucratic bloat and place educators in charge of the educational system.
- We need to broaden our concept of what "student success" looks like to include qualitative, not only quantitative, factors.
- We need to lengthen our time horizon for determining whether learning has happened, rather than assuming an "outcome" can be "achieved" in just a few weeks, or even months. (Basically, we need a huge cultural dose of patience.)
- We need to remember that education and job training, while closely related, are not entirely the same thing--and that while the purpose of education encompasses the important goal of "preparing students for the work force," it also reaches far beyond that, preparing students for citizenry as well as for lives rich in meaning and purpose.
But battleships can be turned around, and if we're going to do so, we have to start somewhere. Dismantling NCLB means the ship might finally be starting to turn in a better direction, and that's encouraging. We do need to remember, however, that we're going to have to do much, much more than simply dismantle NCLB if we really want to turn around the "battleship" of our current educational system. Onward!