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When I ran into a couple of my former high school students recently, they complained to me about the extraordinary number of test preparation exercises they were required to complete during their junior year to prepare them for that year’s standardized tests, tests which would be used to determine if the high school had made mandated Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  It seemed that test preparation had been the dominant component of their English curriculum, while many other classroom activities—such as reading literature of consequence and refining their higher order writing skills—had gone by the wayside.  For them, the junior year of high school English was a boring expanse of timed practice tests—one after another after another—focusing on skills that they should have learned years before.

However, before anyone points a finger and complains that the No Child Left Behind legislation forces schools to “teach to the test”, allow me to offer another thought: the unfortunate experience of my former students points to a problem with our school curriculum as a whole leading to the junior year of high school—not the concept of standardized testing.  If our schools have to engage in panicky last-chance remediation serving to barely boost students over the bar, it points out a flaw in our expectations in the years leading up to the junior year testing.  Why should so much test preparation be necessary if the English curriculum features consistently high expectations for reading and writing from kindergarten onwards for all students?  Is AYP such a difficult standard to meet that our students should find it difficult to achieve proficiency if they are pushed to excel throughout their years of public schooling?

Think about it.  Is it so unreasonable to expect our high school juniors to be able to correctly use the objective and subjective cases of pronouns, punctuate compound sentences, recognize and use some complex vocabulary, understand paragraphing, and read an unfamiliar passage and answer questions about the content?  Doing these tasks well should not require intensive make-up work during the junior year in high school.  Right from the start, our public schools must teach and reinforce these basic English language skills.

Anyone who has ever taught will agree that standardized testing cannot measure all the learning that goes on in a school year.  However, it can—and does—provide a useful yardstick for determining whether our schools have transferred the most basic skills of a literate society to a new generation.  Without the gut check that standardized tests provide, we are blind to failings in curriculum and teaching that will only become apparent well after the diploma has been conferred.  Standardized testing is a tool, albeit one with limits, that allows the public to take a hard look at the results generated by their tax dollars.

“Good enough” is simply not good enough anymore.  We have to press our schools and our students to step up their efforts and outcomes if we are to be able to justify the massive costs of our public schools.  We have been waiting for significant progress in our public schools ever since the U.S. Department of Education issued “A Nation at Risk” back in 1983.   The time for future improvements is today.  We have waited too long already.

The problems our schools have with achieving a measure of success as basic as AYP are less a symptom of flawed tests and more the result of a pervasive culture of low expectations for our most at-risk students, many of whom are shunted into classes that are designed to monitor them instead of teach them.  The one-third of Illinois public schools sporting Academic Early Warning and Academic Watch labels (I recommend a visit to http://iirc.niu.edu to check on the status of your local schools here in Illinois) should be a wake up call for our legislators and taxpayers to kick at the schoolhouse doors and demand results instead of more excuses.  To use an instructive analogy, please consider the following: would you be pleased with a very expensive car that ran correctly only two-thirds of the time?  Why should we have a lower standard for our public schools than we would for our automobile?

Our schools—just as with our automobiles—will not work perfectly every time we call upon them, but we can expect much more than what we receive at present for our tax dollars.  If we remain mute, we are cheating both our children and our nation—neither of which is acceptable in a society that professes to value our children and the wonder they bring to our world.