I will not claim to be an expert on No Child Left Behind. I know enough that it doesn’t seem to be solution to an expanding educational crisis in many schools AND the challenges of a globalized economy. It seems to work against the latter. Call me a bad teacher, but for the last ten years, I have not thought about how my students have performed on the standardized tests given by the state of California. Instead, I have spent that time focusing on developing curriculum and teaching core concepts and skills that will help my students understand the world around them, prepare them to be global and American citizens, and succeed “out there” in the “real world.” Generally, I believe I have been successful. However, in the last three years the results on the social studies portion of the California exam has decreased – as have the school’s API score.
Now it doesn’t matter that the manner in which the scores are weighted changes from year to year – even the literature provided by the state clearly states that these scores cannot be studied longitudely. It also doesn’t seem to matter that last year all of the sophomores were piled into the gym (400+) students to take the exam to a take a test they know didn’t matter to them personally (in contrast to the CA High School Exit Exam). Nor does it matter that California has left its proficiency level at 62% while Texas lowered its level to somewhere around 50%.
As my school starts to examine ways to improve measurable school achievement (which really takes the form of D/F rates and/or scores on the state tests) and my district is pushing us towards Professional Learning Community which seem to have a data analysis emphasis, I am finally thinking about standardized tests. While I always considered the standards (specific content and generalized skills), I used them as a guide, not a map. As the content matter expert and the teacher in the classroom, I make judgments as to what areas need the most emphasis. For instance, the Holocaust is just a single point in the CA world history standards, but I spend three weeks on it. Why? Well, the community in which I teach has issues with tolerance and racism. I once had a student question the validity of the Holocaust IN CLASS. I need the students in my classes who live in this community to all understand the seriousness of the issue of tolerance.
This year, I (and the other world history teachers) have decided to move the Propaganda Video Project, which has been a part of the world history curriculum for years, back until after exam season so we can get through more content before the test. No matter that the project served as an anchor for the Rise of Totalitarianism unit or that it teaches important skills like video planning and production, group work, and recognizing media manipulation. The independent teacher in me is angry. I don’t think this is the best solution for my students, it fits here – not there. However, the rational, level-head pragmatist in me recognizes that preparing students for these exams is part of my job description. Those scores help determine how others see the school. In the private sector, I couldn’t just blow off an element of my job because of philosophical differences with my boss. The hard part now is trying to find that balance of doing what we think is best and what politicians think is best. I just hope I get to keep most of my soul.
As I want to continue to try new projects and technologies with my students, I now have to consider if they cover the standards. Does it hit all of the fine points of industrialization in England or imperialism in India, Africa, and Hawaii? Can I really spend three days on a WWI Poetry Wiki mini-project? (The answer to that last question is yes). It is no wonder some teachers won’t/can’t put in the effort to explore new technologies and skills related to these advancements. While they are important to our student’s success, there is little time and resources available AND they won’t be on the test. Online collaboration, video editing, and critical searching for digital resources are never going to become core curriculum until our priorities shift.
It’s too bad the pendulum never really sits right in the middle, it always has to swing too far to one side or the other.