In the late 1980s, the first President Bush implemented standards-based education, through which all students in the United States were required to achieve a set bunch of standards in order to make sure that all students who graduated from high school were competent enough for the work force they were entering.
Throughout the 90s, these standards became more and more pronounced in public education, and Congress agreed on standards for basic reading, writing and math, which would be proven through standardized tests in key grades like fifth and eighth and a high school exit exam.
The problem with this, though, and the subsequent program, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), is that it is simply ludicrous to assume that all children throughout the United States are able to learn the same information at the same level at the same time and in the same way and not turn into cyborgs. Plus, the fact that financial incentives and punishments were doled out by the government in direct relation to test scores made sure that teachers everywhere would be not only sanctioned, but actually encouraged, to only teach what was going to be on the tests. So-called “teaching to the test” was making sure that all students scored highly enough to guarantee another year of extra funding for the school district, no matter what important information was being left out of the curriculum because there wasn’t time to teach it while focusing on what was really important: filling in bubbles with number two pencils.
Because NCLB allows for states to create their own tests, a number of states, like Missouri in 2008, admitted to lowering the standards of the tests to achieve higher scores and receive more money in reward. Meanwhile, students are only taught that as long as they understand the content on the test, they’ll be fine. This is, however, putting not only those students, but their generation and their country at a huge disadvantage. They aren’t taught to dig deeper, ask questions, and cultivate knowledge and understanding beyond a superficial level.
It’s only realistic to assume that the end result of such programs – those that push every single student to be the same as every other student – would be that the intellectual and educational level of every student in the country, an entire generation of students, is the same. And not only the same, but unthinkably low.
Our generation has been raised to only aim as low as standardized tests. Obviously, I’m generalizing. But that’s the thing about generalizations: they’re based in truths. And the truth here is that unless we were really, truly pushed to learn by a great teacher or parent, there’s absolutely no reason to do better than average. We will be rewarded for our mediocrity.
We now have an entire generation of people who are entering into politics, business and the media who have a fraction of the education than previous generations did. With the focus of NCLB mainly on reading, writing and math, students didn’t receive the broad and far-reaching education that even older siblings or cousins did.
We weren’t taught critical thinking or ethics in high school. We didn’t attend discussion-based classes that encouraged outside reading and research at public high schools, and now as we get herded into college, merged with students from all over the country, and possibly from states with even easier tests, there is a certain lethargy permeating higher education that I’ve witnessed for the past four years at my mid-level, private university. I’ve been in classes with people (who graduated high school and were accepted to university) who honestly believed that Hungary was in Africa and who had never read any of the romantic poets. How does that happen? These are things that perhaps aren’t on standardized tests, but are necessary in life nonetheless.
One of my biggest complaints with NCLB is that funding is not set aside for gifted and talented education. Students who are intellectually superior to the status quo are not cultivated the way they used to be – which was directly responsible for the United States being a leader in intellectual, entrepreneurial and technological innovation for so long. And now we wonder why everyone else thinks we’re stupid? Newsflash: we are.
Because they aren’t encouraged, motivated or challenged to go above and beyond the standardized requirements, gifted students are allowed to laze around, boring themselves to death. We have an epidemic on our hands of possible overachievers underachieving.
Still, the true test of whether the No Child Left Behind Act has left the entirety of Gen Y behind is if we realize it. Only time will tell.