Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: We must teach students more than the basics

It’s that time of year again, when standardized test scores for the public schools are being released by the state and reported to the general population via the news media.

Each year, as these results are printed in newspapers all across California, the common assumption most people accept without question is that higher test scores are automatically synonymous with a better education. I would like to challenge that perception.

I have taught in the classroom as a math teacher now for 35 years (middle school, high school and community college). Over these years I have observed how standardized testing has become more and more a central preoccupation in the schools. Much of this is a direct result of the federal law, No Child Left Behind. Initially, I supported this law. Who could oppose that schools be held accountable for ensuring that their children mastered the basic skills of reading and mathematics?

Yet as NCLB was implemented, I became more and more skeptical. The law has put enormous pressure on school districts, their administrators and teachers to either raise test scores or face a number of punitive measures. The law also assumes that low test scores are caused by substandard teachers and administrators who need to improve in order to raise student scores. If they are unable to do this, ultimately they could be threatened with the loss of their jobs or the closure of their schools.

As a result of this intense pressure, schools have received the message loud and clear that if any part of their curriculum is not on the test, then it is nonessential and expendable material.

In turn, many disturbing trends have transpired. English teachers have begun to debate whether or not classical literature or research papers should be taught, since they do not appear on the test. In mathematics, we have seen a gradual de-emphasis on critical thinking, solving of unfamiliar problems and the development of analytic ability and logic. These also are skills that are difficult to measure on a multiple choice test. Since music, drama and the arts do not appear on the tests at all, some students have not been allowed to take these courses in order to take other specialized classes that strictly focus on standardized test preparation.

Dr. Diane Ravitch is an education historian and one of the leading and most highly respected education experts in America. She was one of the principal architects of the original NCLB law. However, over time, she became disillusioned and came to doubt many of the ideas she once had advocated. In her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” she states that “the overemphasis on test scores to the exclusion of other important goals of education may actually undermine the love of learning and the desire to acquire knowledge.”

If we continue our current narrow focus while ignoring all the other essential elements of a good education, our schools will become in danger of truly failing our students. Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

In other words, if schools continue to focus only on the basics, who will achieve new scientific and medical breakthroughs, design new technologies, or create new artistic and literary masterpieces?

If schools continue to expect nothing more of their students than mastery of basic skills, we may become successful in getting more students to choose the right option from four bubbles on a multiple choice test.

We will not be successful, though, in producing responsible and educated citizens with developed minds and good character, full of imagination and a desire to become lifelong learners. These are all characteristics that a standardized test will never be able to measure and that will become increasingly difficult to achieve under the current culture of testing in our schools.

Don Volle is a math teacher who has taught at Paso Robles High School since 1980 and has been a part-time instructor at Cuesta College since 1983.