High Stakes Testing and the Death of the Renaissance Man

At our last board meeting, the SCSD #1 Board of Trustees joined other school districts and organizations around the nation in passing a National Resolution Against High Stakes Testing.  This resolution may be the long-awaited response (symbolic as it may be) to a self-inflicted cycle of educational pseudo-science, flawed public policy, and the resulting nonsensical panic that ensued nearly 30 years ago.

In 1983, President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published a document called A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.  This document opened with a salvo of provocative statements including “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” and the statement, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

To make a long story short, the report turned out to be more War of the Worlds style radio drama / manufactured pseudo-crisis, than valid research or useful public policy. Studies at the time were unable to document the decline with actual data and multiple studies since have shown the report to be, at best, flawed.  This did not however, stop the report from becoming a driving force in education, giving birth to the accountability movement, and creating a legacy of radical reforms that lacked any consideration for unintended consequences.  This feeding frenzy on schools reached its apex with the NCLB legislation in 2002.

One of the worst outcomes of this educational march to the sea has been the ceaseless narrowing of the curriculum in an effort to improve Math and Reading test scores.  And although we’ve improved our Math and Reading test scores, we’ve also introduced an invasive species into education and it’s killing the entire ecosystem.

One of the key declarations in the national resolution states that, “the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability systems is undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators’ efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences that promote the innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and deep subject-matter knowledge that will allow students to thrive in a democracy and an increasingly global society and economy.”  I speak with business leaders every chance I get and they all tell me the same thing.  We need employees that can communicate well, work on a team, direct their own learning, use technology, use problem solving skills, and have good literacy and numeracy skills.  Must be me, but I missed the section on being really good at high-stakes testing.

The fact of the matter is that our employers need the modern-day, tech-savvy Renaissance Man (and Woman)… and we’ve killed him (and her).  They need someone who can learn almost anything given the opportunity and resources to do so.  And learn they must.  Most people can expect to make multiple changes during their working lives and that flexibility begins with a quality core education and set of skills upon which to base future options.

Robert Heinlein said, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”  And so is specialized testing.

Help us create an educational environment where time for subjects like history, civics, the sciences, art, music, physical education, character development, and social skills, aren’t subjugated to test preparation in math and reading.  Help us put the responsibility for determining what a successful student and a good citizen looks like back in the hands of our local school board.  Help become one of the school districts that says “enough”.  Join SCSD #1 by signing the national resolution as an individual or an organization.  Help us resurrect the Renaissance Man (and Woman).  And by the way, if anybody knows how to plan an invasion, I could use some tutoring.

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About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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One Response to High Stakes Testing and the Death of the Renaissance Man

  1. Cindy Schmid says:

    Thank you for being a leader. SCSD #1 is blessed to have you!

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