The Educational Tipping Point: Change Now or Lose the Race
By Kailee Dahan
It is no secret that the United States is, and has been for some time, falling behind in the rankings for education. According to a 2014 study conducted by Pearson, one of the nation’s leading education firms, the United States ranked 14th in terms of students receiving a high-quality education. Faced with increasing pressure and complaints from teachers, parents, and students across the nation, the Obama Administration recently announced new testing guidelines aimed to cut the number of standardized tests given in an academic year. According to a survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, the average student takes approximately 112 standardized tests from the time they enter preschool until their high school graduation. This substantial figure does not include college aptitude tests including the SAT or ACT, nor does it include testing for graduate programs. Furthermore, there is no evidence that this insane amount of testing is in any way increasing academic performance. The Obama Administration addressed this substantial amount of testing by advising that state and local school districts place a cap at 2 percent on the amount of testing time allowed to take place during classroom instruction.
This shift in proposal of educational policy changes the direction that the Department of Education and the Obama administration are taking with regard to mandated tests, aimed to gauge students’ competency in core subjects including math, english, and science. While the Department of Education admits that “the administration bears some of the responsibility” for the issue of overtesting, they believe that new testing guidelines geared toward clarity and succinctness will improve the current situation.
There is no doubt that a certain amount of testing is necessary to gauge whether or not students are understanding the material that they are being taught and to serve as benchmark figures for competency throughout a child’s progression in their schooling. However, the phenomenon of over-testing is detrimental to both students and teachers. Many teachers across the country feel that the stringent testing procedures and administration cut into critical teaching time that could be better spent on other activities. Teachers are some of the most pivotal people in children’s lives, and their ability to influence a child’s learning capacity is compromised when they are forced to administer a test rather than inspire new ideas and creativity.
Although these recent developments are indicative of a standardized testing epidemic, they also beg the question of what other factors, besides testing, are playing a critical role in education. Examining the countries that scored highest on the list for quality of education might lead to some answers. Although a fraction of the size of the U.S. population, Finland received one of the top education rankings, despite the fact that students there spend less time in the classroom. After changing educational policy 40 years ago, Finland has worked to decrease the number of students in classes to ensure that each child gets to participate and perform experiments. They also minimized the amount of homework given and exams taken, and increased the amount of free time a student has in a given day. Yet, perhaps the most astonishing change applies to teachers rather than students. Finnish teachers are selected from the top 10 percent of their graduating class, must hold a master’s degree (which is subsidized), and are effectively given the same status as doctors and lawyers. This paradigm is vastly different from that of the United States, where teachers are severely underpaid and underappreciated despite being the most important components in the educational model. If teachers in the United States were forced to hold a master’s degree, received a higher salary, and were not publically viewed as glorified babysitters, perhaps students in the United States would not be lagging so far behind their peers around the world. If American teachers were treated better and held to a higher standard in terms of their own education, it would likely improve the overall quality of education, as teachers would be more qualified and motivated.
The increased amount of testing in schools across the country has also created a class of students that is more concerned with the grades they receive than whether or not they really understand the information. As more and more students are pursuing advanced degrees, the amount of testing they are subjected to has increased. In many cases college applicants are reduced down to their test scores or GPA rather than their individuality. This leads to an incredible amount of pressure on students, and this stress can often impact their academic performance. A person is so much more than their exam score or their SAT composite.
While there is no magical solution to fix the educational problem in the United States, there are several methods that could raise performance and put America back on the map for one of the best nations in education. Studies such as the one conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools also emphasize the crucialness of the educational model preparing students for the future job market rather than just the present one. This includes increasing the amount of instruction in increasingly important fields such as mathematics, engineering, and computer science. Perhaps if the educational model was brought back to the quality of instruction, a heightened respect and status for teachers, and the quest to inspire creativity, the United States would not be falling so far behind.