So the truth is, I’m not too worried about the suburban New York elementary school boy whose father complained at an anti-testing forum that his son felt “dumb” because his math lessons were too challenging. Instead, we should all give a little more thought to how the new testing push is affecting people like Tiffany, a young woman from Queens who wants to be a nurse, but still lacks a high school diploma 18 months after the end of her senior year, because she has failed a global history exam 11 times. While global history is important, perhaps she doesn’t need to master it to become a great nurse. Twenty-year old Jessica is working three jobs while studying for the GED, because she failed to meet the mark of New York’s new, tougher graduation standards, which require scores of at least 65 on tests in history, English, math and science. Previously, New York kids could earn a so-called “local” diploma if they scored at least 55 on those exams, and had passed their high school courses. Now that option is gone, thanks to the national school reform push that promotes a single “college and career-ready” standard for all teens, regardless of whether they want to attend nursing school or Harvard.
Other countries don’t work this way. They allow older teen-agers to make decisions about their likely next steps, and to gear their last few years of high school accordingly. And they have much lower youth unemployment rates than we do. The opt-out movement won’t get us any closer to that model. What we need is a much richer, less panicked debate about the curriculum and the tests connected to it — one that acknowledges the need for rigor and relevancy, but defines rigor much more broadly, and lets older students make choices about their own future.