Mastering testing, not subjects

We live in the era of the standardized test when a score determines the success of a student, their teacher and particular school. Those that make the grade receive the prestigious "blue ribbon," and those that do not are given the ignoble distinction of failure. Since funding hangs on success, it has come to pass budget-crunched schools spend weeks or even months preparing students for a test rather than being able to follow a curriculum for a variety of subjects.

Such schools may set up practice sessions using actual questions from previous tests. Other schools have been known not to include the scores of special education students in their final results, knowing the fewer lower-scoring students, the better the school's performance record. The National Association of Elementary School Principals voiced concern the pressure given them to produce high scores has resulted in cheating: "Cheating is an inevitable result of an accountability system that ties jobs, bonuses and school accreditation to test scores."

Of course, testing and being prepared for the test is important, but it is just one means of validating performance and should never become the paramount arbiter nor focus of a school's performance. Mastering a test does not imply mastery of a subject. Resentment among professionals and many parents has built up over the emphasis on testing at the expense of the overall curriculum. The high-stakes-testing pendulum has swung so far in one direction at the expense of vital programs that nourish creative problem-solving and the arts. Some parents become so frustrated with the time given to test preparation they take their children out of public schools for private or in-home schooling.

My personal bias swings in favor of the fully engaged, active student, based on personal experience and a study of effective schools. I believe the blue ribbon should be given to schools whose goal is to educate and fully engage the student, giving them ownership over their learning. This perspective is quite different than that of proponents of the high-stakes-testing model where teachers must forsake in-depth learning in favor of teaching students how to correctly fill in blanks on a bubble sheet.

As a child, I spent many summers at a family run small hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The hotel provided a day camp for the children of guests. It was the typical day camp fare: little color-coded races, competition and endless songs with such wearying refrains such as that of "One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Finding the camp utterly boring, my friends and I made our own alternative structure. We found a willing counselor in Penny, a young woman who had traveled the world and loved to regale listeners with stories of her adventures.

We named our camp "The Barrel of Monkeys," and it was glorious. We invented games, wrote songs and performed in extemporaneous plays. Our little experimental camp elicited wistful looks from those at the more traditional day camp who yearned for the spontaneous creativity we were experiencing. Several years later, facing the perils of early adolescence, I again had the opportunity to become part of a group led by an inspired teacher when our local youth ran an improvisation class for teenagers led by a young actress. She was a marvel with just the right personality to tap the concerns and problems of that age group.

We were given the latitude to write our own play that, of course, stemmed from the dynamic relationship between parent and child. After each rehearsal, we would have discussions of the issues brought forth in the improvisation. These discussions proved cathartic and, in fact, were probably a way of resolving conflicts at home. As the head teacher at the University of California Childcare Center in Santa Barbara during the 1970s, I had the opportunity to apply the techniques I had experienced to a camp that several colleagues and I started in the San Marcos region of Santa Barbara, Calif. Our campers ranged from ages 4 to 12. Most were the children of university professors or graduate students at the local university.

We spent four days together each week, sleeping out under the stars at night, cooking, story-telling and swimming in natural lakes or the ocean. Thursday nights, parents drove up to reclaim their progeny and to get a wonderful healthy meal cooked over an open fire. In the short six weeks the camp fondly called "Dirt" existed, a community was built, problems solved and bonds formed. The experience of participating in our largely improvised camp left a powerful and empowering impression on all involved.

Small wonder — coming from this background and having had an antipathy for many of the boring classrooms that confined me during my years of public schooling — that alternative education that tends not to evaluate performance by high-stakes test scores has always been a passion. During the 1970s, I had the privilege of spending time in several of the small magnet schools that flourished in upper Manhattan. These schools were so successful students from districts throughout the city clamored for acceptance. Such schools still exist, but most students are not able to experience the benefits of small intimate settings in our test-driven mega-school society.

The most prestigious private schools in this country do not adhere to high-stake testing as an evaluative method. Some do not include advanced placement classes, reporting, instead, all of their classes are advanced. An emphasis on testing at the expense of real learning and creativity only serves to further stratify our system.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Theodore R. Sizer, former dean of the Graduate School of Education, and one of the foremost advocates of educational reform, have joined together to reinvent our nation's high schools. I can only hope they succeed, at the very least, in opening the minds of proponents to veer from the high-stakes-testing quagmire from which schools are deeply entangled.

To truly educate students, it is necessary to have a balance between what is purely academic and those areas that feed creativity.