Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, April 4, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 4
Spring 2005

Evaluating ‘No Child’
A classroom teacher struggles to balance test success with
By Rachel Placek ’01
I recall the excitement with which I viewed my entrance into the real world of teaching. Eager to enter a classroom where I could guide students and create my own lessons—rather than sit in someone else’s classroom—I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to teach fourth grade in the Carlisle Area Public Schools. High expectations for what I could accomplish, along with typical, youthful idealism, shaped my plans.

During my first year I worked tirelessly to pursue the best interests of my students and to carry out the philosophies of education that had been imbued at Dickinson and Gettysburg College, where I completed some of my certification course work. With the help of other teachers, mentors and the kids themselves, I survived that first year. I was part of an incredible community that was supportive of children.

Just when I thought I had become more at ease with my journey as an educator, obstacles arose for my school district. In fact, public elementary schools in all states would be greatly affected by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act signed into law in 2002. NCLB, which expanded the federal role in education, calls for increased accountability in schools and includes the potential for parents to choose where their children attend school. On the plus side, it seemed NCLB would provide greater funding for schools that attained high levels of achievement.

From a teacher’s standpoint, I can relate that the new law emphasizes student performance on standardized tests but not how to enhance educational services through new funding.

According to the U. S. Department of Education Budget Service (2004), $12.4 million of Pennsylvania’s federal funding was provided for annual assessment costs. Before NCLB, Pennsylvania was revising state education standards and assessment practices, with students taking annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams. The advent of NCLB has validated and increased the importance of scoring well on these exams throughout the state.

Many educators are not great fans of NCLB or, at least, find it to be flawed. Often, my fellow teachers wonder aloud if lawmakers and politicians have set foot in the classrooms that they want to control. Other people believe that NCLB is a much-needed avenue to educational reform and that complaints come from lazy educators. Still others feel better about paying taxes to schools if they think the test scores indicate that high-level achievement is being reached. My opinion on NCLB emanates from my experiences in an elementary-school classroom.

I acknowledge the need for consistent assessment and standards of accountability, for teachers should have standards to measure themselves against and to guide classroom goal setting. Consistent evaluation and assessment helps me, as a beginning teacher, to become more aware of my strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, I think that the NCLB promotes scores as a measure of a student’s potential or of a teacher’s successes and failures. The perception has created stress for me and my students. Children do not need to experience this type of pressure. To become competent problem-solvers and contributors to society they need to first feel confident and not full of anxiety about test performance.

Each day I consider my students’ backgrounds, personalities, strengths and weaknesses in my teaching and in my evaluation of them. On the days that I become too consumed with testing dates or with pushing the material that I need to cover for a test, I believe my kids have their worst learning days. I’m ashamed to admit that quantity becomes the goal and that the quality of a student’s thinking process is ignored. Opportunities to discover new ideas are traded for more study drills.

Losing my focus on children as individual learners has an effect greater than the sum of their test scores. Sometimes I fear that I’m creating narrower minds and inflexible thinkers. And as I struggle to balance test success with my students’ creative talents, I worry that I am not helping my kids to become lifelong learners. I want to instill a love of learning—as was instilled in me at
Dickinson—that will carry them through all of life’s challenges. But if teachers continue to be swamped with testing deadlines and data collection we will be in danger of losing sight of this goal.

Despite the obstacles, I will continue to teach quality over quantity—to promote divergent thinking over simple, one-solution answers. I try to communicate that the best efforts of my students should supersede the significance of their overall test scores. The kids should know that rewards lie in establishing character and self-worth beyond grades.

It is my hope that schools and states will change the way they react to NCLB, perhaps discover other ways to achieve accountability while building a positive educational foundation for children. I will keep this in mind on the days when it’s harder to keep my focus on lifelong learning and imparting the educational values that I gained at Dickinson to the children I teach today.

Rachel Placek ’01, an honors English graduate of Dickinson, has taught at Carlisle’s Mooreland Elementary School since August 2001.

 


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