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No-child-left-behind law may create ‘elitist' education system, says School of Education director

September 9, 2003

In accordance with new standardized testing and new federal rules for calculating graduation rates, Tennessees State Board of Education has set a 60 percent graduation rate for Tennessee high schools in order for the schools to stay off the states low-performing list.
September 9, 2003

In accordance with new standardized testing and new federal rules for calculating graduation rates, Tennessee's State Board of Education has set a 60 percent graduation rate for Tennessee high schools in order for the schools to stay off the state's low-performing list.

Dr. John Mitchell, director of APSU's School of Education, says the expected 60 percent graduation rate is alarmingly low in that it eliminates 40 percent of the high school population, relegating them to special education classes or leaving them to graduate with only certificates of attendance or a GED.

“All this new standardization contributes to compliance with the very politicized No Child Left Behind law, but it seems to me they're leaving 40 percent behind to begin with,” says Mitchell. "Whose standards are we talking about?"

Making someone take a paper-and-pencil test to determine how successful he or she has been in 13 years of education is "educational arrogance," says Mitchell. "If my child only had a certificate of attendance for 13 years of blood, sweat and tears in a public school classroom, I would be highly upset.”

The new Gateway test, which will be implemented for the first time this fall, requires higher math skills than the TCAP test used in previous years. Using the Gateway test, the state anticipates an eventual 100 percent graduation rate by the year 2013-14 in compliance with the No Child Left Behind law.

“There is no way high schools are going to graduate 100 percent of their students using the Gateway test,” said Mitchell. “Not every student is going to be able to acquire the math skills expected on that test. It's as if we're trying to set up an elitist school system.”

While finding a standard level everyone can achieve is important, creating a standard so high that 40 percent of the population is unable to achieve it is questionable.

“What are we saying about that 40 percent?” asks Mitchell. “There are many people who don't test well, but that doesn't negate the education they've received or determine whether they will be successful or not in the future. There is no legitimate evidence or correlation between doing well on standardized tests and success in life. I'm surprised that parents haven't raised more objections to these standardized testing procedures, which have such far-reaching implications for 40 percent of high school seniors."

Standardization, says Mitchell, also has implications for the quality of teaching in public schools.

“Teachers will agree with me on this. When you teach to meet a certain standardized test, you're not really teaching at all. You're just ‘teaching to the test.' If the standard is Gateway, and the score is what gets a high school diploma, then students, teachers and administrators are going to focus on the test. And we know that ‘teaching to the test' is already happening in the schools to an alarming degree.”

“There is so much more to learning, so much more to a well-rounded education than what can be measured on a standardized test.”

The effect of the new expected graduation rate would be felt by teachers as well, said Mitchell. As the success of teachers will be determined by their students' scores, the emphasis on “teaching to the test” will become greater.

“The variety of student abilities that are found in our classrooms is a strength, not a weakness,” said Mitchell. “We want critical-thinking people, we want to try out new teaching techniques. The real point of education is to get people to think for themselves, to learn how to participate successfully in a democratic society. Frankly, I question whether the standardized testing frenzy associated with No Child Left Behind will produce a healthy, democratic society.

“It's preposterous to think that a standardized set of facts, skills and experiences would be appropriate for every student in a school, much less for a region, state or the entire nation.

“Standardization does not encourage creativity or genius. We need a lot more people who think outside the lines in order to deal with the kind of problems our world faces. And the non-standardized-thinking geniuses are likely among the 40 percent who are already being left behind.”