"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dousing the Flame in Pennsylvania High Schools

Teacher Jake Miller speaks out for his students and for his profession on the plans in Pa. for high school exit exams.

From morningcall.com:
''Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.''

While a student at Bloomsburg University, I remember stumbling across this banner, and being floored by its message. These words, which I later learned were a quote by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, serve as the flag to my classroom at Panther Valley High School today.

I am a firm believer that students learn by doing, but more importantly, by wanting to do. Give them a torch and a sense of guidance, and they will find their way. But give them a pail, and you'll find how much they hate being compared to other students on assessments such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA).

After learning about the Pennsylvania Board of Education's decision to make PSSAs standard as a graduation requirement, I gave them the torch of my classroom to discuss the proposals. Here's what I learned:

A mere mention of the acronym PSSA automatically conjured an array of emotions. Some students were filled with revulsion. They hate the PSSA. But they detest our school's 4SIGHT remedial test, its evil step-brother, even more. Just yesterday, one of my problematic ninth grade students was pulled from my class during a test review, which he was fully participating in and thoroughly enjoying, to fulfill his 4SIGHT requirement. He pleaded to stay, but I explained the state supercedes me as boss. His response? ''Mr. Miller, I'm going to finish in five minutes.'' He was back in four.

Many students, like this young man, have learned to be apathetic about tests. After years of taking tests with no review of their answers, they do not know how to improve themselves and achieve the coveted ''Advanced'' or ''Proficient'' ratings. So, they've learned to be unconcerned.

Yet, others are entirely consumed by them. One student told me that when he was in third grade, he used to get nauseous the day before the PSSA because he had been brainwashed to succeed. Instead of finding success, some students unearth stress. Approximately 49 percent of students suffer from test anxiety; giving them more tests shows how little their apprehension matters.

Special education students are also a concern. One of my students explained to the class, if we have these standardized tests, a student like her might be forced to drop out. Her face turned sour as she explained, ''I need teachers' help on tests, and I feel lost when I take the PSSA.''

What about vocational-technical students? ''I'm not going to college,'' professed one of my very blatant students. ''I just want to learn a trade. But with this proposal, I'll be forced out of something I love to do into college prep courses. That is crap!''

Imagine that your son or daughter has problems the year he or she is to take one of the two English PSSAs (language arts and reading and writing, which must both be passed). Said another student, ''It doesn't matter what the problem is whether it's a bad teacher, a teacher on maternity leave, or the student having personal issues. He or she still will be forced to take a test needed to pass, but are doomed to fail.''

I love feeling floored by statements like that.

But, if teachers are forced to teach to tests, conversations like the one I had with my class, where students discuss and solve problems, will be replaced by the memorization of answers. In effect, we will force a continual extinguishing of the fire by examining the filling the pail that is standardized testing.

It's a light we cannot afford to lose.

Jake Miller is a social studies teacher at Panther Valley High School.

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