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More Tests Wont Help High Schools

Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.

President Bush has said it is time to expand NCLB testing mandates to U.S. high schools so graduates are better prepared for school and work, but Gene Carter of the Association for School Curriculum Development says tests alone won't solve the problem.

By Gene R. Carter
(This article is reprinted with permission of ASCD.)

A great deal of attention has been focused recently on the demand to improve high schools, including President Bush's call to expand No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act-mandated testing in high schools. Although the President's attention is rightly focused, high-stakes testing is insufficient to solve the problems high schools face, including high dropout rates, low student engagement, and poor college and work preparation.

In Texas, where high-stakes testing has been the norm for more than a decade, increased testing has done little to stem the tide of dropouts. In the last several years, Texas schools have come under sharp criticism for falsifying dropout data to hide the true number of dropouts and, more recently, for rampant cheating on state tests.

The relevancy of state assessments also has been questioned. As Stanford professor Michael Kirst wrote in the November 2004 issue of Educational Leadership, "State high school assessments stress knowledge and skills that differ from college entrance and placement exams." These "disconnected education systems are undermining students' college aspirations," he continued, and contributing to the failure of many students to graduate from college.

Do you agree with Gene Carter of ASCD? Do high schools need more engaging programs rather than more tests? Click here to join the discussion.

Education reform that brings more of the same to our high schools will not suffice. As Virginia Governor Mark Warner wrote in Education Week, "a revolutionary approach to high school is needed -- one that challenges and engages students in meaningful, lifelong learning and provides a nurturing support system at all levels." Rather than focus solely on high-stakes tests at the expense of educating the whole child, we must ensure our students are civically engaged; motivated; and emotionally, physically, and socially healthy. Each of these aspects of a student's learning and development is crucial to preparing students for their future success as employees, college students, citizens, and healthy, productive adults.

A story my colleague told me about her son is an example of the importance of engaging students through relevant, challenging high school experiences. As a sophomore in high school, her son was an uninspired student whose journalism teacher had to chase him down on the football field to remind him that his newspaper story was overdue. Just two years later, as a senior, this student was not only the editor of the school newspaper, but also won scholarships as the Virginia high school journalist of the year and as a runner-up for the national award.

"Education reform that brings more of the same to our high schools will not suffice,’ writes Gene R. Carter, executive director of ASCD.

More important than achieving success on a high-stakes test, he found his passion. As he grew connected to his journalism teacher, he also became more engaged in his school and community. When a police officer erased digital pictures my colleague's son had taken of his fellow students being questioned by the police, this young man defended his First Amendment right of freedom of the press. He relied on his journalism teacher and his school for support and, ultimately, made a difference in his community and at the police department, where police officials decided to use his story as a training tool. Currently, he is a successful college freshman planning to major in journalism.

This student illustrates what we can achieve when we provide students with challenging learning experiences that are relevant and valuable to them. Rather than search for a one-size-fits-all approach or add more standardized tests, we must encourage innovative ways to engage and challenge high school students by meeting their individual learning needs and interests.

Many innovative schools are working toward this goal by connecting students with internships, college coursework, and service learning in their communities. At the Met School in Rhode Island, for example, Dennis Littky has created a school that gives students individualized, real-world experience through internships and personalized learning. Said one eighth grader, quoted in Littky's book, "I am more interested in school because school is more interested in me."

Students like this eighth grader and my colleague's son -- who are challenged to learn more about the things they are passionate about -- are students who are more likely to be engaged and successful not only in high school, but also long after graduation day.

Gene R. Carter is the executive director of the Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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