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Standardized Testing, NCLB, and the Education of Young People

August 17, 2011

[Note: This began as a response to a question asked of me at a student government event, morphed into an AP English 11 essay, and ends(?) here as a blogpost]

When answering what variables are most important to long term education and career development, it’s important to consider—how can the same method possibly work for all students? In grades six to twelve education, there are three main groups we have to consider. Based on our (albeit flawed) heavily test-based system, these can be characterized as the “red”, the “yellow”, and the “green” (these are the colors of these groups on test graphs and charts). The red are under the minimum amount the student is supposed to know, the yellow are just over the amount they need to know, and the green are well above what they need to know. It’s important that we consider a three prong approach, because each of these groups have a specific problem and a different solution.

The red level students need “motivation”. All students are capable of passing standardized tests. Disregarding issues such as safety and disability (which must be dealt with before we can speak on broad terms), every student who puts in an effort can pass the majority of offered standardized tests. Students in the red don’t put in an effort; the reason, however, may not be their fault. Red level students have not been taught that education matters. They don’t want to go to college, or maybe even graduate, and don’t see why they need to, why they’d want to, or why it’s important. It hasn’t been taught in their homes, and in fact the opposite may be taught. So, red level students need motivation. They need teachers who work closely with them, develop an inspiring, caring relationship, and who teach them not just the knowledge, but why they need it—who show them how it can help them in their life. No matter how much we drill test content into their head through repetition, a student who does not want to learn will not learn, and will never pass into the yellow. Motivate them, and they will personally ensure that they succeed.

The yellow level students need to be “pushed”. The yellow group makes an effort, and understands schooling as a vital part of their lives. They may or may not have college aspirations, and may be borderline on college acceptance. The problem with the yellow group is a lack of pressure to step up. Once they are passing standardized tests, there is nothing giving them incentive to take on challenges, and challenging yourself is the only way to grow. The yellow level students need to be shown that there is a bigger and broader world for them to experience in education, need to experience the content and challenge of upper level courses, and need to be shown the effect of a college education. The yellow need to be pushed into Honors, and even and more importantly Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs. Here, they will have a chance to experience challenge that will grow them as an individual, prepare them for the future, help them to realize they can step into higher classes, and most importantly, show them the interesting possibilities for a student that can stimulate further learning and interest. The yellow group should be pushed slowly, to avoid overwhelming them, but firmly, so that they do step up. Yellow group students should be made to take higher and higher level courses, exposed to this atmosphere, and stimulated to seek higher level learning. 

The green level students need “enrichment”. Green level students have everything they are supposed to know memorized, and are most likely ahead. Green level students have surpassed the curriculum, and—this is a major issue—are in fact slowed down by it. More than anything, students in the green are bored. Green students receive large amounts of work, but little amounts of information. Classes are taught to repeat the baseline— to stress the test— not to show students the amazing opportunities available in each subject area. Our current system draws green students towards the middle line. They are limited by work that doesn’t benefit them, and lack of exposure to advanced topics that they are capable of. To counter this, education for green level students needs enrichment. Once the baseline information to pass the test is taught, is does not need to be repeated. Curriculum for green level students needs exposure to advanced topics that will not be tested, so that students can risk learning highly complex topics without the stress or “dumbing down” effect of teaching to a test. Green level students need to be shown their potential and allowed to grow, somewhat independently, and explore how they can apply their skills. Green level students need to be allowed to surpass basic curricula and tests–not held back by their sheer work, time, and the effect on curriculum challenge–and instead be enriched by advanced topics and content, and allowed to explore each of the subject fields to their own potential. 

Finally, it’s important to consider a few specific notes. First of all, each of these methods will not work for the other groups. The green level is already motivated, but the red level is not ready for advanced topics. The green level has already been pushed, and the yellow level is already motivated. It is important we use the correct technique for the correct group, or our education system will be ineffective, or, worse, detrimental. Second, testing does play a role in this three prong approach, but only for evaluation purposes. Testing is needed for placement, needed to evaluate progress in the red and yellow group and to assure baseline knowledge in the green group. Notice, however, that testing is not the central feature of any prong. The red prong focuses on inspiration, teacher relationship, and life knowledge. The yellow prong focuses on class scheduling and rigor, insight into the future, and teacher holding students to higher standards. The green prong focuses on advanced material and individual study. None of these groups benefit from a test focused system. It in fact harms each group. The red are not motivated by tests, and are in fact scared off of education by them. The yellow use average test results as reasons for complacency. The green have curriculum below their capabilities designed to avoid bad test scores, and are forced to repeat knowledge they know rather than acquire useful insight. Testing structured systems benefit no one. Third and finally, it is important each of these groups receive the support they need. Without receiving their individual prong, progress from red to yellow will slow to a halt as students can no longer benefit from repetition. Progress from yellow to green will never get a significant start as yellow level students will see no reason to strive for excellence, or even see that they may enjoy the green level experience. The green level students will actually be pulled towards the middle line, as the curriculum is lowered to ensure teaching of basic test concepts, and opportunities for growth and independent study are limited. Our education system needs to see these variables addressed. Without doing so, every child is being left behind.

[Note (Again): Reactions–whether agreeing or disagreeing–are welcome and encouraged in the comments. The best ideas come from a conglomeration of every other. Additionally, your criticism on my writing is welcome as well, I’m always looking to improve!]


From → Education

  1. jstrong permalink

    I think abstracting individuals to three groups and then coming up with reasons why those groups are failing is part of the problem for the reasons you mentioned, more specifically:

    “It is important we use the correct technique for the correct group, or our education system will be ineffective, or, worse, detrimental.”

    Some ‘red’ kids definitely lack motivation, but I bet many don’t. I was homeschooled so I’m not a perfect example, but I performed poorly in elementary-level education because of my poor handwriting skills. I was pretty motivated though. Once I started using the computer and digital technology I skyrocketed. Some kids struggle in school because their brains are hard-wired to learn visually instead of through processing auditory information, etc.

    Basically I agree with the gist of your argument, but would take the argument to a much finer level of granularity: to an individual level. One-size-fits-all education sucks, but three-sizes-fits-all isn’t that much better.

    • I will always agree that individualized education is the best option. No size of groups will ever deliver the perfect education. But my goal is to bridge the gap between the Washington suits who say “individual education is unrealistic and inexpensive” and the online dreamers who say “every kid should be able to learn whatever they want without grades”. It’s a question of: 1) providing a happy and realistic medium 2) providing a system that leaders of the industry will actually adopt so we can make steady progress towards individualized education. We can make as many idealistic structures that give student completely individualized and free education as we want, but we need a plan that will get implemented. It’s that balance I hope to outline here.

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