The English department’s edict came down as it did every week.Teachers at Southwest High School in Fort Worth, like many other schools, are given a list of what objectives to teach, the vocabulary on which the students should be drilled, the books students should be reading and what questions the teachers should be asking about those readings.
All of this is done to prepare students for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, a standardized test given to all students statewide to gauge what they have learned in their classes.
Instead of devising an innovative way of disseminating this information to the students, the teacher in this particular classroom viewed this list as the lesson plan.
The 11th-grade English students were told to look up the vocabulary words in the dictionary. Every question the teacher asked came straight from the sheet.
Some would see this as evidence of the toll standardized tests take on classrooms, but as student teacher and senior secondary English education major Chansi Shope viewed this lesson, she saw it as a failure of imagination on the part of the teacher.
The passage of the No Child Left Behind act, a federal law establishing national standards of education for all students to meet and for which teachers are held accountable, has left many teachers believing their role is just teaching test objectives and ensuring all students meet a minimum standard.
Many current teachers feel restricted by objectives, and simply teach to the test, Shope said.
“Students coming into the School of Education are warned not to let the test take over our creativity,” Shope said. “There must be passion behind teaching or it will be flat.”
Shope said her professors in the School of Education show students how to be creative in a standardized environment: Let students know what skills the tests will look for, then don’t teach to the test – teach over it.
Educational standards and accountability are not products of the current Bush administration.
The idea that education should be standards-driven grew through the 1980s and culminated in a fall 1989 education summit with the first President Bush and the National Governors Association. The resulting plan to promote national standards through a national standardized test was struck down by Congress in 1991 over controversy surrounding how a key feature of the program would be funded – school vouchers.
Texas developed a standardized test in 1979 in response to the growing need to assess student achievement. The current incarnation of this test, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, expanded the number of subjects tested by the state.
School of Education dean Samuel Deitz said No Child Left Behind is the national application of the programs used in Texas.
“The man in charge of education (when the law was passed) and George Bush were from Texas and liked the Texas system,” Deitz said. “Those of us in Texas didn’t have to change a whole lot (when the law was passed), because we had already done it.”
Deitz said the passage of NCLB has led the School of Education to focus on meeting the law’s requirement of producing “highly qualified” educators.
“We have been more and more careful over the past five or six years to bring our program in line with the standards, which define what Texas says a teacher ought to do,” Deitz said.
Educational psychology professor Cathy Block said the courses have been made more efficient and coordinated in the days since NCLB.
“We no longer duplicate subjects,” Block said. “In the past, a professor might teach a concept and then the same concept would be retaught in another course with another professor.”
Block went on to say professors are mindful of what objectives on the certification test each lesson meets. The Texas Education Association administers the test to all aspiring educators.
“Instruction is more intense,” Block said. “I spend more time planning every day.”
The care taken by the School of Education faculty to ensure all students meet the state’s requirements is evidenced by the 100 percent pass rate for the most recent group of TCU students to take the state’s exam.
Educational administration professor Mike Sacken said the dangers of standardized testing are illustrated by the cycle of test preparation in which students must take part. He said educators preparing aspiring educators for tests – which allow them to prepare future students for a different set of tests – represents a depressing prospect for those who would choose to dedicate their life to teaching.
“We have to tell (students) there is no escape,” Sacken said. “They will be preparing kids for tests.”
Sacken went on to say standardized core curricula do a great deal of harm to trade schools as well, thus limiting variety in education. With cognitive science findings showing that common conceptions of how people learn may be too narrow, Sacken said he believes variety is the key to a solid education.
“Minimal competence standards keep the top quarter dealing with too much test prep,” Sacken said.
“Teaching isn’t like removing an appendix. No single method and no specific type of teacher can cover it all.”
When standardized testing measures certain skills and neglects others, the neglected subject will see scores and proficiency decline, Deitz said.
“The emphasis for a decade was on reading and math, which means science wasn’t emphasized from elementary school level on,” Deitz said. “It’s not unusual to wake up and see science scores are bad when we haven’t worked on them. Now that we have come back around to science, the scores will go up.”
Dan Powell, an associate professor of educational administration, agrees that measuring one skill will result in the decline of another unless those making educational policy realize the subjects not tested are important as well.
To Powell, the reason other programs and skills fall by the wayside in the wake of standardized testing is a lack of resources in the school system.
“Standards in schools are healthy when they are backed by adequate funding,” Powell said.
Powell noted education funding increased under NCLB, but said it was not enough to satiate the need.
A former school superintendent for the Everman Independent School District, Powell said there is a danger in putting so much pressure on educators and administrators, as it will transfer to the students.
“The yardsticks NCLB created are much more difficult for urban districts to match,” Powell said.
Sacken said as long as the at-risk students have complex domestic issues or have to work jobs in addition to their schoolwork to ensure a roof over their head, they will never be able to compete with privileged students.
“It is a lie to say we can leave no child behind, and everyone should admit it,” Sacken said. “We should never give up on a child, but when a student’s circumstances prove to be too overwhelming and a teacher is blamed for the student’s failure, it is morally wrong.”
Under NCLB, physical education, art and music are sacrificed in public schools to make way for more test preparation, Sacken said.
Powell also said testing is responsible for the loss of arts education. The result, he said, harms low-income schools more than others because those students don’t have a chance to connect to subjects and fields that could keep them going to school.
“Schools are vehicles for changing the future of all students,” Powell said. “Poor students don’t get to see Bass Hall.”
Block, who has spoken face-to-face with President Bush about education, said Bush recognizes the funding problem, but his commitment to keeping taxes at their current rates leaves only the option of cutting programs to pay for new ones.
“Bush has cut 29 programs to fund No Child Left Behind,” Block said. “There would need to be an exponentially greater number of programs cut to meet the need for funding.”
In light of this financial drawback, Block said NCLB should be looked at as a steppingstone on the path to improving education.
“We need to view accountability with some creative thinking as a means of expanding the capacity for thought in every student,” Block said.
With an aging U.S. teaching force, one of the primary goals in educational policy should be attracting new teachers and keeping them in the schools, Block said.
Powell said keeping skilled teachers in school so they can make connections with the children is paramount in any effort to improve the quality of education, especially with low-income students.
Deitz and Sacken saw student debt relief for educators and high pay as a way to keep teachers in schools.
Block said it is important for students to see their unique gifts would be used if they entered the education field. She said those considering the field of education must understand that standardized testing doesn’t mean they can’t be creative.
As for the next generation of educators, Chansi Shope said she doesn’t see No Child Left Behind going away.
“There is no way to get around NCLB or something similar to hold teachers responsible,” Shope said.
Sacken said that reforming the system will be incredibly difficult and time-consuming, but offered some hope for recruitment of new teachers.
“Many people look to education like a secular ministry,” Sacken said. “They want to serve children. That magic can’t be stolen.