"Rating middle school education more complex than test score"
John H. Lounsbury
(published in the Atlanta Constitution, September 7, 2001)
If America's middle schools are not up to par — and they aren't, a condition we all agree does exist - it is because organizational changes that have remade the face of American education in recent decades have not led to comparable changes in curriculum and in the ways teachers and students interact in the classroom. However, research makes it clear that when middle schools implement — in curriculum and instructional practices — what our knowledge of learning and human development supports, students make measurable gains in academic achievement.
The general public, as well as those who report on education, seem almost oblivious to this reality and are too focused on standardized test scores. An education, particularly at the middle level, involves considerably more than the very limited aspects of schooling that are assessed by paper and pencil tests. Overlooked are those elements of an education that have the most enduring influence. The attitudes, values, and habits of mind that students develop during the formative middle school years will direct their behavior in the years ahead and determine their success in high school and beyond. Education, particularly in a democracy, has to involve heart as well as head, attitude as well as information, spirit as well as scholarship, conscience as well as competence. Test scores are simply an inadequate yardstick by which to measure anyone's education. Though standardized tests have merit, their serious limitations in evaluating either the adequacy of an individual's education or the competency of a faculty should be openly acknowledged, while full recognition should be given to other educational goals.
Foundation of learning
Middle schools must accept responsibility for goals broader than the temporary acquisition of information or the mastery of basic skills. They should seek to improve students' reading skills, to be sure, but also to engender a love of reading and impart those skills and attitudes needed by a lifelong learner. The effective middle school is not just a teaching factory; it is a laboratory of living where important lessons are derived from the relationships among and between students and teachers as well as from the formal instruction provided.
There exists, unfortunately, a perception that middle schools care too much about students' self-esteem and related social concerns and not enough about their academic achievement. A full understanding of young adolescents, however, makes it clear that in order to maximize academic achievement, schools must be sensitive and responsive to the God-given developmental tasks that impact youth at this stage of life. Teaching young adolescents is the most demanding and complex job in all of education.
Teachers are important
There is another concept that needs to be understood by the newly established middle school councils and others seeking to reform schools. The teacher makes the difference. This is a truth so central to improvement efforts that it must not be overlooked in the scramble to find the right program, the aligned curriculum, or the additional requirement. It is naïve to assume significant changes can be made by adjusting schedules, adding content, or "raising standards," all the while bypassing the professional growth of teachers.
Regrettably, the current push to improve test scores is bringing to a halt effective and engaging approaches being used by our best, most professional teachers- practices that invite students' voices and hone their problem-solving skills.
Teachers are being pushed to narrow their efforts to achieve short-term goals. The integrity of teaching itself is being severely damaged by top-down, test-driven efforts to make schools accountable. Such efforts rely on external motivation and punishments; and while they may have some positive short-term effects, they come with a price that outweighs any temporary gains made in scores.
Unless middle schools are supported in fulfilling their inescapable responsibilities for developing well-educated adults who are also healthy, ethical, and productive citizens, we could find ourselves in the position of winning the battle to improve test scores, but losing the war to build a better America.