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Test-fatigue: 'Where's the juice?'

The Verndale School Board engaged in a fascinating discussion Monday night that shed light on two pretty significant systemic problems in K-12 education today: students weary of standardized tests, and students who are advanced grade levels for social reasons, but haven't mastered the necessary skills.

Before I get off on the "what's wrong with education today" rant, I need to make something crystal clear: I'm not one of those people who says kids today are lazy or dumb or anything like that. I believe kids today are doing more, and doing it better, than any generation before. Don't believe me? Pick up the syllabus for a few classes offered on your local high school schedule. There's everything from physics to calculus, business law and information technology.

I also don't blame teachers or administrators. Their roles have shifted significantly: it's no longer about teaching a few subjects, it's about raising the child and taking care of all of their needs from cradle to adulthood.

But it certainly raised my eyebrow when I learned that kids today have become skeptical and unmotivated when a testing form and a number two pencil are laid before them. The first question out of their mouths, frankly, shocked me: "Where's the juice?"

You see, when the state's Profile of Learning tests were first administered, the kids were given juice boxes along with their tests.

I'd hate to be a teacher today, knowing full well you're going to be judged by administrators and parents based on the results of this test, and having students who care only about their juice.

Do I blame the kids? That would be easy, but these kids have seen test after test, each pitched to them as more important than the last, only to be abolished and replaced by new (and usually more) tests with every election of a new president, governor or party in power in the Legislature or Congress. Kids are skeptical about the tests, and they're savvy about finding out which ones matter and which don't. And when the tests that were pitched as life-and-death the year before are suddenly tossed out by the newest group of lawmakers, kids notice.

The discussion turned to ways to motivate the kids, from standardized test pep rallies to certificates for early release from school to limo rides en route to pizza parties.

Wouldn't the test results simply become about which schools have the best incentives, instead of which has the best learning environment?

The idea of the tests are logical: measure performance, get good data, and make adjustments to reach the kids who need extra help. There will always need to be some sort of accountability: the public that foots the bill for education will demand it.

But if tests are determined by juice, pep rallies or pizza parties, the main thrust of doing the test -- getting an accurate data picture of performance -- is no longer reliable.

The Verndale School Board then hit on what appeared to be a core issue: if students can't read or do math at a seventh grade level, what the heck are they doing in the seventh grade? Shouldn't they have been held back?

Teachers confirmed this. They said when half of their class isn't ready to work at the level of their grade, far too much time is spent on remedial work. This, of course, causes the more advanced students to shut down their brains. But it doesn't seem to help those who are struggling, either. Eventually, a student is advanced up the ladder so many grade levels above where their skill level is, they also shut down, because they realize they'll never get caught up, and will never catch on.

It's a problem. And it's not an educational problem, it's a societal one. If students and parents are more concerned the student is not held back because it will reflect badly on them, the problem will remain. And no one is served by this.

But which school wants to be the one with the courage to stop the cycle, and start holding the kids back? I'll tell you which one: the one that will soon start losing kids left and right through open enrollment, because it's easier for a parent to accept that it's the school's fault than it is to accept it's the student's fault.

All in all, it was a fascinating discussion, and really started to get at the root of the problem. I'm sure there will be a lot of negative reaction to the topic, but I give that board and staff a lot of credit for starting the dialogue.

I'm not so naive as to think I have the solution to a systemic problem people far smarter than I have surely been working on. But it seems clear there needs to be some way to advance students based not on their age, but on their skill. Could the student who reads at a third grade level, does math at a sixth grade level and writes at a seventh grade level be assigned to teachers based on that, rather than their chronological age? Is it time to do away with fourth grade and replace it with Reading 4, Math 4 and Science 4, made up of kids of all ages who are currently at that level?

Advancing students based on skills serves them better, and teachers at the classroom level will always know best what level the students should be at -- not some standardized test, juice or no juice.