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Originally published June 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 11, 2008 at 12:45 AM


Guest columnist

Test-based education is shortchanging students

AS another school year winds down, debate about the challenges facing Seattle's public schools is heating up. Recent pages in the Times...

Special to The Times

AS another school year winds down, debate about the challenges facing Seattle's public schools is heating up.

Recent pages in the Times have been awash with stories about the resegregation of our schools and new Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson's plan to add tougher, "standards based" programs at low-income schools as a way to attract more upper-income, white families back to their neighborhood schools.

Inexplicably, even as standardized "teach to the test" programs like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are coming under withering criticism across the political spectrum and across the country, Seattle appears to be recommitting to more standardization in our children's classrooms as a means to solve our complicated social problems.

In a well-intentioned but shortsighted effort to infuse "rigor" into Seattle high schools, Goodloe-Johnson is pushing for as many Advanced Placement (AP) courses as possible. Unfortunately, the AP is not much more than a gilded WASL. As one of the world's wealthiest cities, we should set higher goals for academic achievement by investing in smaller student-teacher ratios.

Let's keep it real Seattle. If we're going to talk about social justice and equity in education, let's walk the walk. If we truly believe that all kids deserve an equal opportunity to realize their potential and achieve their dreams then we must shrink class sizes and de-emphasize standardized, test-based courses like AP.

Forcing teachers, to implement the AP model brings to mind the proverb that "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink." AP English literature students must master 24 literary devices, including the five pair, mixed syllabic construction of iambic pentameter lines. AP history classes are notorious for long lectures, longer reading assignments, and a brutal exam on which 50 percent of the questions are objective.

On behalf of the thousands of Seattle kids on the losing side of the achievement gap, we need to admit that this is not the type of curricula that will engage them. Let's not pretend that adoption of AP "rigor" will inspire ninth-grade kids with sixth-grade reading levels to stay in school. Likewise, let's not pretend that the standardized AP approach of a "mad dash through the chapter and a test on Friday" is the best curricula we can give our most-highly-skilled students.

Look to our city's elite private schools for ideas. Kids at Lakeside and Bush do well on standardized tests and fare well in college admissions. Tellingly, however, their teachers are not forced to waste valuable class time and resources on mind-numbing "test prep" lessons. Kids at Lakeside and Bush do not take the WASL, and AP courses are not offered in their hallowed classrooms. Really, you can look it up.

The strongest argument for AP courses has always been that its relentless push through material prepares kids for college and helps them in the admissions policies. But AP is no longer the "gold standard" it once was. According to The Christian Science Monitor, "many colleges have stopped giving it weight in admissions and have raised the bar for those who want to receive course credit for their AP test scores."

For all students, real learning involves deep thinking and a thoughtful, personal encounter with ideas and concepts. Whether the topic is photosynthesis, parallelograms or Plato, the cultivation of avid learners and engaged citizens takes time. For struggling students, especially, success in the classroom requires their voices to be heard and their questions patiently and thoughtfully addressed.

Let's not pretend that adoption of AP constitutes a "visionary" approach to improving our high schools, as Mayor Greg Nickels suggested in a recent Times column. Let's admit that we are caving to political pressure to "get something done" in Seattle's schools and to "compete" with AP-rich districts like Bellevue.

Let's rebuild our neighborhood schools by cutting class sizes, not by investing in more standardized-test-based courses like Advanced Placement. Let's let our children's voices be heard. Our kids are counting on us to be up to the test.

Web Hutchins is the lead teacher in Franklin High School's John Stanford Public Service and Political Science Academy, a program that cultivates an ethic of service and active citizenship in students. He has taught history and English in the Seattle Public Schools since 1990.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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