This past month, students in 4th, 7th and 10th grade across Washington State took the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning). The WASL is Washington State’s attempt to quantify what students have learned in their years of schooling in the areas of Math, Reading, Writing and Science. Tests similar to the WASL have been around for years, and most of us can remember sitting in a hot classroom bubbling in dots with a number 2 pencil as our teacher walked around to make sure you were not drawing spaceships on your answer sheet.
The WASL does have bubble-in sections, but most of the test asks students to do more than just bubble the correct space, they are asked to explain in writing how they got their answer. These written answers can range from two or three sentences, to complete six page essays. The other major difference is that not passing any of the sections of the WASL will mean that you don’t graduate, so far this standard is not in place, but in 2008 it will be.
Most opponents of this type of test attack it because it places too much emphasis on a single performance by a student, and they are right. Most proponents of WASL type tests argue that students should be able to perform at a certain level in order to graduate, and they are right.
The fact most opponents and proponents ignore is what high stakes testing is doing to our school system and our children. There is a fundamental shift taking place because of these tests and it is a shift that most people don’t realize. We are shifting the role of schools from one of creating citizens to one of creating workers.
Big business is behind this push to create workers instead of citizens and will benefit the most if education continues down this path of high stakes testing. Within school districts changes are already taking place, course offerings are being cut back, WASL remediation classes are taking the place of other classes that could be offered and teachers are teaching to the test. Is this what we really want for our children? Or shall we ask the real question: Is this what you want for your children?
Before you answer let me tell you a little more about the test. The writing section asks the students to write two letters, one is expository and one is persuasive. How is that for a lifetime of learning? Write two letters. Is that all you want your children to know how to do? Don’t you have higher hopes for your son/daughter? Don’t you want you children to learn about History, Art, Foreign Languages, Music, Drama, Drafting, Physical Education, Creative Writing, Shakespeare, Technology, Journalism, Psychology, Sociology, and Political Science?
What we are up against is a battle for our culture. We should be fighting to pass on our culture to our future generations and not passing on the idea that a paycheck is the goal of a good life. We should be more concerned about what we are losing by focusing on so little when the world is made up of so much. We are too busy trying to quantify learning and we are forgetting that learning is not something that can be measured like a pound of meat. Human’s shouldn’t exist simply to be categorized, stamped and moved into cubicles where we work in an empty job so some shareholder can vacation in Bermuda for a week longer.
Education in America needs to be about more than a bottom line. Creative thinking is what fuels our society. Our creative freedom is what the world envies about America and it is what we seem to be willing to give up in order to crank out lemmings for big business.
I do not want to move to a system where students sit around in bean-bags and discuss their feelings. I am absolutely not an advocate of a system that is so concerned with a child’s self-esteem that we allow them to learn nothing. I want a system that stimulates my child’s mind and doesn’t dull it. I want a system that encourages growth and does not retard it. I want a system of high expectations, high standards and encouragement. I want a system that challenges our very brightest and pulls up the needy. Schools like this cannot be legislated.
Education in America is not broken; it is also far from a perfect machine. Our schools reflect our society, but our schools also need to aspire to higher goals than our society. Schools in the United States are the conduit for our children’s dreams and when those children are unable to reach those dreams, we need to look closely at why that happened. Schools need support and accountability, just as our children do, but holding a threatening stick over everyone’s head is not the best method for improving our future.