TEACHERS NEED to pick their battles. I scanned my fourth-grade students in the Bronx and considered several battles in my mind.
Battle Number One: Manolo arrived in my classroom determined to fight the world. His mother had died when he was in second grade and he had to repeat the year. However, Manolo took substantial steps when he began to write creative stories, favoring historical fiction in which he inserted himself into a famous event. His writing revealed great imagination and interest, but his spelling and mechanics remained poor, and state exams continued to label him a failure.
Battle Number Two: Sara entered my classroom leaps ahead of her peers. She wrote hilarious, irreverent poetry and had already mastered grade-level math. She fired off endless questions about current events. Sara was a dream student, hungry to be challenged. However, the administrators at my school discouraged creative lesson planning in order to cram in endless "drill-and-kill" packets of basic skills test-taking strategies.
Battle Number Three: Eddie was in his fourth year in fourth grade because of absences and test failures. It seemed impossible to get him engaged in class. However, he loved to draw and showed a remarkable, natural talent for perspective sketching. Tragically, my class was deprived of all arts in order to allot more time for standardized test preparation.
How could I help these children face their challenges? Every moment, I felt pulled in 26 directions, invariably drawn to the louder children who act out. And then there was the ever-looming Test.
Everyone involved in education policy claims to be on the side of students, yet I quickly learned that the needs of my students fell quite low on the school's priority list. Nearly six years into the No Child Left Behind era, American public schools have more money than ever, but students are still widely denied the most crucial tools for their success: individual attention and specialized support.
In a more rational, equitable system, Manolo would have access to small-group tutoring, Sara could flourish in a challenging, high-level classroom environment, and Eddie could explore his artistic inspiration in school. They would meet with guidance counselors (my school had a ratio of 550 students per counselor) and mentors. Knowing their school supported their individual needs would further engage these children.
However, the resources that my students badly needed were being spent elsewhere; the money was going into high-stakes testing.
We have entered a dangerous era in which the fad for education policy is to import statistics-driven paradigms from the business sphere. These mechanistic models are an ill fit in education, a wholly human institution. Testing may provide easy-to-crunch metrics, but it creates a negative, all-consuming test culture, and does not paint a comprehensive picture of students' abilities.
Under No Child Left Behind, schools, particularly in high-poverty areas, are under intense pressure to meet quotas on one-size-fits-all standardized tests. Prepping for the test and getting a well-rounded education are not the same thing, but there is not room in the school day for both tasks.
The suffocating squeeze that my students and I felt was not a case of a few rogue administrators misunderstanding the law, as Assistant Secretary of Education Doug Mesecar has said. A recent report by the Center of Education Policy discovered that 44 percent of schools have reduced instructional time in untested subjects (social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch, and/or recess).
It's not just the government trumpeting high-stakes testing as the way to get "accountability" from schools. The media have largely gone along for the ride as well, trumpeting minute shifts in test score graphs as headline-worthy successes or failures.
We have taken our eye off the ball on what is most important in schools - students' needs. Senator Edward Kennedy, chairman of the Senate committee overseeing the creation of a new No Child Left Behind bill, has an opportunity to recommend changes to the sweeping law.
Manolo, Sara, Eddie, and every other child, parent, and teacher in America are counting on him.
Dan Brown is author of the just released "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.