After years of hearing how kindergarten has been turned into the new first grade, you’d think at the other end of the K-12 pipeline we would find highly advanced students. And yet ― not so much.
I am not going to waltz you through the “research,” because the available research is bogus and part of the actual test-centric problem. What I can tell you is what I, as an actual real live classroom teacher who knows actual real live classroom teachers, see and hear.
This is the result of accelerated early instruction done primarily in the service of test-centric schooling (”We have to get them started early ― otherwise how will they be ready for the Big Standardized Test??”)
It is lost years.
By the time these same start-em-early push-em-hard students arrive at high school classrooms, they are behind compared to the students that we saw twenty-five or fifteen or even ten years ago. They know fewer things, have fewer skills, and express lower academic aspirations.
Why? I can offer a couple of theories.
They have learned to hate reading.
They have learned that reading is this thing you do with short, disconnected, context-free selections, and when you read, you are not looking for something that sparks interest or enjoyment or curiosity or wonder or the pleasure of feeling your brain expanded and grown. You read so that, in a moment, you’ll be able to answer the questions that someone else wrote ― and by “answer” we mean from the potions given the one answer that someone else has decided is “correct.” There will be no expression of your own personal insights, and never the possibility that there’s more than one way to understand the text. It is a stilted, cramped way to approach reading, and it means that students grow up with a stilted, cramped notion of what reading even is, or why human beings actually do it.
With some luck, some students will still discover the joy and, yes, utility of reading ― but they will discover outside of school, and they will not expect that the kind of reading that they love has anything to do with the test-centered “reading” they are required to do in school. (That higher level course has additional “reading”? Then I surely don’t want to sign up for that.) And since the real task here, the real point of the whole exercise is not the reading, but the answering of questions about the reading ― well, I bet I can find a time-saving way to cut that corner. Because after enough years of this, many students conclude that “reading” is something to actively avoid.
There’s no pleasure there, no discovery, no ideas to mull and discuss, no characters who help us pick apart the thorny questions of how to be human in the world. Just clues for answering the BS Test questions.
Their years are shorter.
The school year is now shorter. It is shorter by the number of days involved in the BS Test. It is shorter by the number of days spent on pre-testing and practice testing. It is shorter by the number of days spent on instruction that is only being implemented because it will help get them ready for the test.
By the time we’ve subtracted all those days, the school year is a few weeks, a month, maybe even more than a month shorter. It was only 180 days to begin with. The test-centric school has amped up a feature of education that has always frustrated teachers ― the 180 day year is a zero sum game, a bathtub full to the absolute rim with water. You cannot add something without removing something else. A really feisty or frustrated teacher might turn to an administrator who just said “Add this to your class” and say, “Fine ― what exactly do you want me to stop teaching?” But mostly we’re expected to just make do, to perform some sort of miracle by which we stuff ten more rabbits into the hat.
It doesn’t work. Every year students get less actual instruction than they used to, which means their teacher next year finds them a little bit behind, so the school year that used to start on Day One now starts on Day Thirty after the students are caught up ― and then it ends on Day 160 because, you know, testing. So the following year those students are that much more behind. And so on, and so on, and so on. We are making up the difference just as cleverly and determinedly as we can, but we are only human, and our time is finite.
In the end, kindergarten may be the new first grade, but for many students, twelfth grade is the new eleventh grade.
There are certainly students who escape this effect, and teachers have varying degrees of success mitigating it. But mostly the injection of toxic testing into the bloodstream of US education has had the predictable effect ― it has weakened and damaged the entire body.
Mind you, that wasn’t what we were promised. The injection of test-based accountability was going to transform the Steve Rogers of US schooling into a mighty Captain America of education. Those tests, linked to The Standards That Dare Not Speak Their Name (but which have never quite gone away, either), were going to lead to a surge in new and successful college students. Test scores would rocket upward, and we would get to be the Belle of the Ball at the next PISA Prom. We were going to have success out the wazoo.
And yet, none of that is happened. Mind you, I don’t think the BS Test scores mean jack, and they have never been and will never be my measure of success. But reformsters chose the game, set the rules, picked the measurement they wanted (BS Test scores) and they STILL lost the game. We have wasted over fifteen years of education; some students have seen their entire schooling consumed by test-centric baloney.
Yet we keep plowing on, keep committing to Testing Uber Alles. We are losing students, losing education opportunities, losing the chance to awaken some young humans to what they could be and could become― instead, we are still trying to mash their spirits flat under the heavy testing hand. We are losing years that we cannot get back, cannot give back, and this is not okay.