06/26/2007 10:07 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What We Learned in School This Year

This month many public school teachers across the country are boxing up their classrooms, arranging portfolio folders of each student's work, and saying goodbye for the summer. It's a season of poignancy, field days, last minute rushing around, and for unlucky classes without air conditioning, stultifying heat.

It's a reflective time of year. Teachers and students may think, "How did I grow in school this year? What did I learn that will help me in the future?"

At such a pivotal moment for public education in America (No Child Left Behind is currently up for reauthorization), it is necessary for everyone to consider these important questions:

1. Is our public school system moving forward in fulfilling its promise of free, quality education for all?

2. What defines success in schools? What does our school system of dreams-come-true look like?

Asking questions like these to ourselves and to our policy-makers is particularly crucial right now because the reality is that American public schools are aggressively barreling in a terrifying direction.

Under the No Child Left Behind model for accountability and success, standardized testing is expanding at a fast and furious rate. The test scores are tantamount to life and death for schools' survival and students' futures. When the annual scores are released, they are headline news, and they are scrutinized to the tenth of a pecentile.

Students ask for the test results everyday. "Did I pass? Do I have to go to summer school?" They have nightmares. Parents hold off on summer travel arrangements until the all-important scores come in.

The student portfolios I mentioned above, comprising multidisciplinary work that has been painstakingly accumulated throughout the entire year, are essentially worthless. In a Bronx middle school English class taught by a talented and dedicated friend of mine, a majority of students shrug off much of their schoolwork because they have learned that all they need to pass -- and thus be celebrated as a success -- is to scrape by with a 2 out of 4 rubric score on the annual standardized test. The "2" score is below grade level, but still counts as passing.

Everyone in the school system has gotten the message: Do well on the test or your life will be miserable -- for at least the summer if not for years to come. (There is no positive reinforcement under high-stakes testing, only negative.)

Under such a severe mandate, people scramble to "play the game" rather than focus on real learning and socialization. Many states lowered their standards to make it easier to score high on the test, thus creating an illusion of quality education. Cheating is a pervasive natural byproduct of the "whatever it takes" philosophy accompanying the tests. It is painfully obvious that children are left behind here; they are, in fact, last on the list of priorities evidenced by the administration of high-stakes testing.

Our current testing regime would tacitly dismiss my two numbered questions above as inane. Education Secretaty Margaret Spellings contends that everything is going great, and that No Child Left Behind is a "huge game-changer" law, ensuring access and opportunity for all, particularly poor and minority students.

This is a lie. Their intense scrutiny of every set of testing data provides specious bases for claiming success, and their high-stakes testing culture has turned schools into bottom-line-obsessed testing factories. High-stakes testing does not help teachers know their students' needs or support individualized instruction, as NCLB supporters claim. In fact, schools' now-widespread practice of public humiliation by endlessly announcing and posting test score failures and successes paints the picture of very few people's ideas of a school where dreams come true.

With No Child Left Behind not yet renewed and a presidential campaign in its early stages, now is a critical moment for an honest national conversation on education. Let's take stock of what happened this school year: School districts are cutting art, music, and gym to find more time for test prep. Children are forced to pee on themselves because of the intense test security protocols. Schools are sacrificing thoughtful and progressive education in favor of continual drill-and-kill test cramming. America is losing the hearts and minds of generations of bored, embittered students and teachers.

We should think long and hard about where we want to go from here. Let's listen to what teachers -- an incredibly rich resource of education expertise -- have to say. Here are some of my ideas.