This fantasy is a nightmare!

Put on your rose-colored glasses and imagine this fantasy: 

When it comes to academic success, all children are immune to such factors as their parents' situation, access to food and health care, vision or hearing issues, early childhood education or enrichment experiences, stress, expectations for academic achievement, the number of times they move in a year, trauma affecting people they care about, the learning conditions in their schools, language barriers or their ability to concentrate.

In this dream world, every child—regardless of their economic status, educational setting or personal challenges—is expected to learn the same amount, at the same rate.

Using this fantasy as their basis, regulators have developed quick and inexpensive tools that can measure the depth and breadth of academic success. A machine can grade the measurement tool, and a mathematical formula disconnected from real-life experience determines the score that indicates whether a child is good to go. Annual measurement of student progress is the only “resource” that state or federal government agencies need to provide to make sure children are reaching their expected academic performance, as defined through a political process.

Here is another piece of the fantasy: The only thing that matters to a child’s growth is the child's teacher. Sadly, this unrealistic understanding of what affects academic success, and what is possible to achieve by testing for it, is driving public education. It is time to call this daydream what it is—a nightmare.

In March and April, children will be in the fitful final push to prepare for mandated tests. If all students perform as the fantasy says they should, they will prove their teachers are worth their pay, but, if they fall short, they and their teachers will be labeled failures.

Ohio high school students who don’t achieve the cut score on any one of multiple tests will not receive a diploma. If too many students fall short, the schools they attend will be called struggling or failed, and the communities where they live will become known as places to avoid. For teachers it will mean a bad evaluation and evidence that they are lazy and heartless "bad guys" who let the children down.

This high-stakes disaster is the creation of our state legislators, who are charged by the Ohio Constitution with creating a system of education that serves all children. The legislature seems to think all that is needed is to wish everyone could be alike, administer tests that show that they are not, and then blame teachers. Anyone who challenges the logic or validity of a system constructed on a mountain of flawed ideas and invalid measurement tools is called an apologist guilty of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Children are individuals. How they experience each day and function within the classroom setting—how they learn and when, what captures their imagination and ignites their motivation, how they react to a test—varies from child to child. It is possible to both honor individuality and hold high expectations.

Educators, parents and citizens believe in the wealth of potential that exists within each of us. We want education to give diverse sets of learners the chance to let their varied gifts come forward. We want education to help children develop the social and intellectual skills needed to be good citizens, to continue to learn, to work.  

Uniformity is not what we need. Our test-driven system, built on dangerous falsehoods, is killing education as a resource for the mind, and it deflects attention from the messy issues that need to be addressed and the investments that could pay off if we truly want success for all. As the world grows smaller, economic differences are growing and opportunities are shrinking. If schools are to succeed, they need to nurture learners who are ready for this complex environment—not test takers. Addressing segregation and concentrated poverty would be good places to start.

I keep hoping this absurd system will fall under the weight of its failures, but nothing changes without people speaking up. I know I can’t continue to play along with something so wrong.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

Read More on The Common Good
Volume 7, Issue 4, Posted 3:08 PM, 03.31.2014