Too much testing, not enough learning

I am a former student of a top tier liberal arts college. I scored high on both the SAT and the ACT and passed the FCATs with ease. I am the product of the public school system that complied with all state and national requirements under No Child Left Behind. I am the definition of a successful student that proponents of education standards can point to.

Or am I?

As the new school year begins and the implementation of the Common Core Standards moves forward, the debate surrounding it rages on. Proponents, such as former vice chair of the Florida Board of Education Roberto “Bob” Martinez, claim that it’s “an essential step in getting our children ready to compete successfully in the 21st Century world economy.” They proudly detail the new assessments being made and how they are a significant improvement over those currently in place.

Yet is that really what we should be striving for? Does improving standards and implementing a more difficult corresponding achievement test mean that the education students get is any better? If every student scored above average on the new tests based on the Common Core Standards, does that mean our students are now more prepared to compete in the 21st century economy?

I’ll admit I am tempted to say yes. If I were to start my schooling over under the new standards, I’d surely excel just as I did under No Child Left Behind. For most people this system works. The fact that students of privilege — those from white, wealthy families — score better on standardized tests is far from a secret.

Just as the standards before it, Common Core continues to ignore the biggest problems in education: social injustice and economic inequality. I was able to beat the system by hiring the best private test prep tutors, and nothing would change under new standards except the test I’d prepare for.

Yet the problem with Common Core, and any standards implemented after it, is not what it sets out to do but the flawed principles it continues to perpetuate. At some point in time, the definition of what makes a good education changed. Common Core’s explicitly stated goal is to prepare students for “college and careers.” What happened to learning for the sake of learning? Today’s parents are more likely to ask their child, “How did you score on your math test?” rather than, “What did you learn today?”

The only way to ensure students graduate ready to compete in an increasingly competitive world is to redefine what constitutes a good education. No longer can we expect a set of fixed standards to guide our students into the future. We must move away from evaluating the quality of education based on student test scores in a subject. Instead, we ought to implement a series of measures that reflect the degree to which each respective student progresses along his or her chosen path.

This will replace our current system of standards-based education that favors certain groups by privileging certain knowledge. Shifting away from institutional mandated standards will reduce the stratifying effects of inherited privilege.

Learning in this new environment involves each individual student following a personalized curriculum with no prescribed content or learning outcomes. Class time would then be used to engage students in problem solving and discussions.

Now armed with the ability to think critically on their feet and effectively create their own path, students will excel. Indicators of students’ progress would rely on critical thinking, creativity and communication skills — not memorization of arbitrary, antiquated standards.

As a society, we’ve bought into the idea that there is only one path to success. You go to school, get good grades and high test scores, graduate high school and go to college. But this single-track system doesn’t work. Only by embracing individualized curriculum paths can we truly prepare students for the careers of tomorrow.

Greg Hoffman is a graduate of Miami Palmetto Senior High and a former student at Claremont McKenna College. He currently works as a network partnership analyst for Duty Free Americas.