SUDDENLY, SOMEHOW, the geniuses who emerge every couple of years to tell us (for a fee) how to fix public education have all agreed that standardized testing is the thing. Here in Washington, the result is the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Last week, the fifth annual round of WASL testing for fourth, seventh, and 10th graders began across the state. By 2008, students will need to pass the 10th grade WASL in order to earn a high-school diploma. At the moment, a majority of students would fail at least a portion of the test. Nobody has quite explained how taking a test—which measures learning—will help to improve learning; but absent some dramatic improvement, when the WASL requirements kick in, there'll be a whole lotta flunkin' goin' on.
The nationwide testing fad, like every other edu-fad of the past 30 years, is a kernel of a good idea transformed into a panacea. Student accountability, a good idea, becomes a one- shot test that only measures one way in which students might learn or demonstrate proficiency —a dubious idea in complete contradiction to the teaching trends of the last generation.
Plenty of folks are pointing out that as a way to help (or force) students to learn, WASL is at best ridiculous and at worst counterproductive. One group is collecting signatures for an initiative that would abolish WASL. Another, only somewhat facetiously, wants to force politicians to take the test, too.
None of this nonsense solves the original problem: how to help kids who aren't learning much to learn more. Edu-fads come and go, but there's only one consistent districtwide predictor of academic success—money. Well-funded schools with well-compensated staff (read: in affluent suburbs) invariably do better, on average, than poorer communities' schools.
The obvious solution is to change the way schools are funded so that the quality of your schooling doesn't depend on what neighborhood or city your parents can afford to live in. That's an off-limit topic, because it not only speaks to America's dirty little secret—class—but also because it would cost money and throw a lot of encrusted bureaucracies into turmoil. If anything, the trend is the other way; more people these days actually want to abolish public education than fund it adequately.
There's only so much that funding can do, anyway. Ultimately, if we want to improve the way in which struggling students learn, we need an altogether different test: We need to test parents.
Can't you see your kids coming home from school with a No. 2 pencil and a copy of the Washington Apple— the Washington Assessment of Parental Learning? The potential WAPL questions are endless: Do you spend more time with your child than you do on a golf course or at the mall? Is that time spent actually interacting with your kid or sitting side-by-side staring at a TV? How much TV does your child watch? How much of it is age-appropriate content? How many of your child's meals actually have positive nutritional value? When was the last time you talked with your kid's teacher(s)? Who are her or his friends, and where do they hang out together? Do you ever see your offspring's homework? Do you know what TV shows, videos, and Web sites she or he sees? Have you ever read to your child? Visited libraries or museums together? Traveled? Do you respect your child's intelligence? How often does your son or daughter see you using tobacco, alcohol, pot, crank, or a crack pipe? How many drugs have you put them on?
And so forth. There's no better predictor for how a child fares in school than how involved her or his parents are. None. No consultant-given educational fad, not the WASL nor anything else, can inspire or terrify a student into learning if he or she doesn't care. And regardless of class or educational opportunities or native genius, if the parent(s) don't give a damn, the kid usually won't either.
Tests like the WASL are the wrong answer to the wrong question. The wrong question, in this case, is: How can we improve school performance without spending more money or offending voters? The wrong answer: Dump it all on the kids. If they don't make it, tough.
Ours is a culture that in many ways fears and loathes its children. We either ignore them or structure their every waking moment. We saturate their minds with materialism, sex, and violence and then insult their intelligence with adult hypocrisy on these matters. We underpay everyone from midwives to day-care providers to teachers. We tell teens they're adults when they break the law but "too young" when they want to take on responsibility. And when it's parents and politicians that need to take on responsibility, we test the students instead. Bring on the Apple!