This is a picture of my son Cameron and I from a Veterans Day Program put on at his school when he was in the third grade. It is one of my favorite pictures. It is also a very misleading picture, as, despite the heart-melting smile, Cameron was not a happy camper that day. In fact, he was a nervous wreck.
Here in Ohio, we have something called a “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” which establishes that every student must achieve a certain score on a standardized test of their reading skills before they can advance to Fourth Grade. Though we couldn’t quite figure out why at the time, Cameron, despite excellent marks in Math, Social Studies and Science, was struggling mightily with reading and writing. And the prospect of being left behind from his friends and his brothers had him scared half to death.
Thanks to some incredibly dedicated teachers and staff, as well as a very supportive and encouraging family, Cameron was able to pass the test before the end of the school year. And then the most amazing thing happened. With the pressure of avoiding failure associated with the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” finally lifted from his shoulders, Cameron’s interest in reading flourished. As a result, both his skill level and passion for reading increased dramatically within weeks. Over the course of that next summer, he went from being a child terrified of picking up a book, to the kind of kid who spends his birthday money on collections of his favorite series. (Currently, he’s a big fan of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Goosebumps.”)
There’s a lesson to be learned here about how we educate our children. No two people learn at the exact same speed, so why do we expect every child to be held to the exact same standard? Are we trying to give children the skills they need to learn, or are we simply bombarding them with facts repeatedly so they can memorize them in order to pass a test? Could the fact that their natural desire to learn is being stifled in order to focus on the standardized tests that carry so much weight for both teachers and students alike be the reason so many children hate school?
One thing is certain. To pressure or shame children because they may be a few weeks or months behind the majority of their peers accomplishes nothing in the terms of helping them learn. It is counter productive at best, as is holding them back from moving on with their peers based on these natural differences in ability. It is time for the public education system to move away from testing based on arbitrary standards, and back towards encouraging the natural inquisitiveness of our students by focusing on providing them with the skills they need to become successful, engaged adults.
In short, learning must once again become more important than testing.
This is not something that can be accomplished by our elected officials, or in some Board Room in Columbus. It is time to take responsibility for education away from the bureaucrats and put it back in the hands of teachers, parents, and students.