Budget cuts and a single-minded focus on preparing youngsters for high-stakes tests have, in the opinion of many, made the American public school experience downright boring. And, for what? On Wednesday, the College Board announced that SAT reading scores for the high school class of 2011 were the lowest on record, while combined reading and math scores fell to their lowest point since 1995.
Reason For Decline
While College Board officials insist the declines may be the result of a broadening test pool -- for instance, about 27 percent of the 1.65 million test-takers last year came from a home where English was not the only language, up from 19 percent a decade ago -- Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of the group Fair Test, told The Associated Press that explanation doesn't add up. In 2003, the number of SAT-takers expanded by a greater percentage than last year, according to Schaeffer, but scores actually rose 6 points on both math and reading.
Yes, changing test-taker demographics matter, he said. No, they don't explain a 18-point drop [in combined scores] over five years.
Supporters of the education reform movement argue that evaluating teachers based on test scores is the only way to ensure they are focusing enough attention on reading and math skills necessary to academic achievement for students in low-income areas, who typically score the lowest on standardized tests.
As a result, the arts, humanities, science and even physical education courses have either been reduced or sacrificed, a move that may be making children and teens less inclined to actually enjoy a day at school.
Too Much Testing, Not Enough Lessons?
In fact, some studies indicate that students, especially those of color, are not showing up to class for precisely that reason: they're bored. A February 2011 report by Youth United for Change found that boredom was one of the greatest factors that caused students in Philadelphia to drop out.
It's so much time put into the testing, and it gets boring, says Ramon Rodriguez, one of the contributing study authors who himself dropped out of a number of Philadelphia-area schools. To sit there and read constantly, the same questions that they ask every year.
No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush's education policy initiative that was implemented in 2002, requires schools to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on reading and math tests or face harsh penalties, including closure. Furthermore, President Obama's Race to the Top grant encourages states to tie teacher evaluation to student test results in order to compete for extra federal funding.
The focus on standardized testing is starting earlier and earlier, to the point where even kindergarteners are being indoctrinated into the system. A 2009 study by the Alliance for Childhood found that kindergartners in Los Angeles and New York City spent six times as long on literacy and math skills than playing, even though early education experts insist that play is crucial to a young child's healthy development.
It keeps going -- a 2007 Center on Education Policy study found that 44 percent of elementary schools have cut instructional time spent on non-tested subjects since the start of No Child Left Behind by 32 percent, while time spent at recess, according to a 2005 Department of Education report, averages only 26 minutes per day, with low-income students spending even less time outside.
While arts education has been a considered a worthy sacrifice on the journey to improving test scores, cutting those classes may actually have the opposite effect. A 2009 study from Long Island University found that elementary school students who received piano lessons did significantly better in vocabulary and verbal sequencing at the end of a 10-month period than those who did not have any musical instruction. Other studies have concluded that participation in the arts have been associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability and critical thinking.
The United States continues to fall behind number of competing nations when it comes to educational performance. The 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment ranked the U.S. at 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, out of 34 total countries. The U.S. fell behind nations such as South Korea, Finland, Singapore, Japan, and both Hong Kong and Shanghai in China.
If American students continue to perform below expectation, despite constant test preparation, than maybe we should point to the nation's public education system as a problem. If educators focused on fostering a love of learning, instead of test scores, they might be able to keep students interested.