Open Letter to the Students of America

Dear Students of America, A lot of people seem to yearn for the “good old days” of education: you know, the days when the United States wasn’t 27th in the world in science and 35th in math (DeSilver, 2015). I do too, because I want myself, my friends, and my fellow United States citizens to have some of the best educations on the planet. It’s not excessive jingoism, but a wish for my country to once again be competitive in the world of education. This is where I go wrong. I, alongside many of the people in my country, fail to see that it is our inherent wish to be competitive in education that causes us to fail. Education is not a race; coming in first does not get us any prize.

Yet we still feel the need to beat every other country in this pedagogical match. So, we make measures to help our schools become the best in the world, most recently in the form of standardized tests. For this, I must express my regret, because in the pursuit of making American education competitive again, our country has created policies that detriment the foundations of our nation’s education. As a child, I loved taking standardized tests. I remember feeling a certain joy when I filled in those small bubbles with my trustworthy number two pencil.

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As superficial as it may seem, it felt good to do well on these tests. It felt good to know that somewhere in my state or country, people looked at my test and saw my accomplishment, as it became an infinitesimal data point in the servers that our nation runs on. Now that I’ve matured, I realize that standardized tests are not all that they seem. Standardized tests aren’t inherently bad. It makes sense that in order to make sure that our education system runs efficiently and well, we must have measures to track students’ progress.

After all, without knowing how our education systems are run, we have no way to fix them. In this way, standardized testing is a very useful measure. Yet these tests are often used for more than just tracking progress. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, not only would the government track the progress of students through these tests, but they would also determine the futures of schools. Claiming to help children in failing schools, policies would make sure that disadvantaged children would not receive poor schooling by shutting down schools that did not make adequate yearly progress toward the (unfairly unrealistic goal) of 100% literacy in reading and math by 2014 (Diane Ravitch, 2010).

As one could guess, standardized tests became the measures of this progress. While schools should be held at least partially accountable for what their students learn, when punitive testing became the greatest measure of accountability, schools began to shift their focus from teaching content to passing tests. With these new punitive tests, it became clear that schools, not kids, were the main concerns of these policies. Schools’ reliance on – and fear of – these tests detrimented the education of many children. Rather than teach their students information that would help them develop and grow, many teachers and schools opted to teach to the test by preparing kids for test-taking strategies, instead of information that was going to be on the test.

This ensured a higher test score for their students, but a stagnating level of education for their students (Diane Ravitch, 2010). Tactics like this damaged the education of students, for it became more important for students to know how to take the test than to know the information on the tests. These tests, which the government had created as a means to ensure the proper education of students, forced education to take a back seat to high scores. For these reasons, I am sorry to the students of today. I am sorry that the modern American education system has failed you.

I am sorry that standardized tests have been used as a punitive measure, not just a tracking measure for schools. I am sorry that standardized tests have shifted the focus of modern American schools from educating students to obtaining high scores. I am sorry that, in this age of American education, the score on your standardized test means more than the information your teacher teaches you. Sincerely, A fellow student