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Tennessee Student: Is Standardization Making Us Conform to an Ill Formed Bureaucracy?

A remarkable video has been making the rounds, of a Tennessee student named Kenneth Ye, a senior at Farragutt High School in Knox County. He recently spoke to his local school board on the subject of the Common Core and the high stakes reform he has seen enacted in recent years. I reached out to Mr. Ye, and asked if he would share his comments here, and respond to some questions. Here is the result.

Kenneth Ye's remarks to the school board:

I am Kenneth Ye. I stand before you today as someone who has achieved within the mold of standardization. I speak as a student that has taken the tests and jumped through the hoops.

I've taken over 12 Honors courses and 18 AP courses so far in my high school career.

I'm a National Merit Semifinalist. A National AP Scholar. I scored a 35 on the ACT composite the first time I took it. And I am a proud product of Knox County Schools.

It's my teachers that have inspired me to learn and pursue my interests. It's my teachers that have sent me towards success in academics and extracurriculars. It's my teachers that have FOSTERED a sense of creativity, inquisitiveness, and individuality that inspires me to learn.

However, as our schools take another step to becoming the next big bureaucracy in America, I would like to call for a conference of concern. With the new Common Core system, I see us shifting even further into a "one size fits all" factory of education, where we churn out students seen as "proficient" through testing. My close friend came here last month and described the flaws inherent with the foundation of our educational bureaucracy, and I'm here today to discuss one of the consequences.

My largest concern is the influx of high stakes testing and the effect it is having on our students, along with the flaws in its establishment. We need to understand that setting high standards and helping students work towards achieving them is drastically different from mandating all students to achieve them.

Investigate the members of the Common Core work group, and you see a board comprised of members affiliated with the ACT, Collegeboard, Achieve Inc. Perhaps the mere presence of these people does not concern you, but it becomes a glaring conflict of interest. For-profit companies should not have such influence over public education. I understand that business makes revenue. However, while public education is grossly lacking in funds, should we, as citizens, not be directing what funds we do have towards the students, and not these corporations for hire?

Pearson PLC is the largest education company and book publisher in the world. Pearson Ed--the American subsidiary - not only publishes the educational materials for our schools, but also the standards and tests for the CCSS. The company stands to make billions of dollars selling these products to school districts across the United States. The CCSS furthers a process begun in 2002 with the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). According to the Pew Center on the States, annual state spending on standardized tests rose from $423 million before NCLB to $1.1 billion by 2008. This has continued under the Obama administration's Race to the Top, which has tied federal funding for schools even closer to test-based performance standards run by for profit companies.

Pearson's Chief Financial Officer, Robin Freestone said in a media statement that in 2013 "We're not going to get a significant boost from Common core" and "that won't come in 2013 and so that headwind will remain in our school business". Not only is it concerning that in fact, their market value hit its high in the past 12 years and has been steadily increasing with Common Core implementation, but it's the implications of this "school business".

Have we forgotten what education is? Education is not a business to be run. It's a process of informing human beings on how to contribute to society. A system formed on the principles of arbitrary testing cannot stand. It's not true education. But let us forget the business and politics for a moment and examine the actual tests.

We look towards PARCC assessments. Specifically called the "Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers." These nationalized tests that have been paired with Common Core are said to have one goal: "success in college and the workplace". The problems presented on these tests, however, are of justification with no merit, a learning system inherently flawed. These tests are not fair assessments of student's knowledge. If you look towards the mathematics section of the PARCC website, we see that it "calls for written arguments/justifications, critique of reasoning, or precision in mathematical statements". As a student who has scored 5s on AP Calculus, AP Statistics, and is preparing to take Calculus 3 at a local college next semester, I can honestly tell you that I cannot answer and justify your First grade Pearson math test question "What is a related Subtraction sentence?"

Besides these shoddily made standards, even the way we teach is now entrenched in data. The emergence of this high stakes testing brings about a stream of issues. Testing of students in grades K-2 has been put in place, an age where children are still trying to develop their niche learning style. Not only were no experts on early childhood included in the drafting or internal review of the Common Core, but we see experts stating that these "preparation tests" for Common Core are developmentally inappropriate. Our teachers are put under the pressure of teaching to the test in an attempt to have students "prepared" for an arbitrary assessment. Students can look straight to our TDPs and SPIs and see that our schools are being turned into data run factories. Factories based on speedily approved standards that are now being implemented around the country.

I know one of these factories personally. It's one that we're trying to compete with. I have been a student of both the American and Chinese systems. We see a technical outperformance by the Chinese in standardized tests. But does this communicate the creativity and inquisitive mindset in our own culture?

As we project towards the future, we must consider the implications of these policies being put into place. What will the standardization be like in 10 years? Shall we be taking the American equivalent of the Chinese entrance exams and Gao Kao? Our public education is striving to parallel the high technical efficiency of the Chinese, and as a student who has learned in both environments, I can clearly say that the increase in standardization and testing, coupled with the pressure that coalesces, will diminish the creative and inquisitive mindset that we seek to foster.

As someone who can perform on the tests you throw at us, I am not satisfied. I've taken your tests, aced them, pulled your state averages up, but what I show you on that test is not why I learn. CCSS.ELA-Literacy W.11-12.3e is NOT why I learn. I do not learn to fulfill some SPIs on the board. This is not what fulfills me as a student. I learn to ask questions. To develop opinions. To make a difference. It is with this that I beseech all of you to take a moment to reevaluate what you are doing to our schools. Is it truly in the best interest of the students? Should we be conforming to this ill formed bureaucracy?

Thank you."

My interview with Kenneth Ye:

What prompted you to take the time and energy to speak to the Board about your education?

I spoke at our Board meeting after seeing teachers rallying against the cause. I found that I strongly agreed with their points and that I could present a student's perspective on a lot of the testing that has emerged. I wanted to present a new perspective for the board, one from a student model that I believe they are striving for, a perspective I hoped would lead towards some new analysis of the changing standards. Though Common Core does not directly affect me, I thought that speaking out would be something that could help the future generation of students.

What has been the response since the video was posted?

The response has been very positive, garnering some attention from people around the area. I'm very glad to say that it's generating a lot of positive discussion and also informing more people about the issues that we're facing in education today.

What are your concerns about the testing industry?

A lot of my concern with the testing industry is the high pressure situations that they are instilling, coupled with the establishment of some inappropriate methods of testing. I can admire some of the things that they strive for, such as more critical thinking and in depth knowledge, but from what I've seen, the tests are just shifting towards more open-ended questions that often times confuse students. A lot of what testing industries are based on is quantification across all spectra, and this type of thinking is just leading our education system astray. My hope is that the testing industry is not as emphasized as it is now and that the pressure and money interlinked with testing is more appropriately diverted and dismissed.

How have you seen high stakes testing affect your education in Tennessee?

 Whether it was the TCAPs, ACT, or SAT, high stakes testing has always been present within my education. I have not and will not see the direct implications of Common Core's testing interfere with my learning, but even with the nationalized testing that we have already; I notice a very strong change in education. Students are being raised from a very young age to be prepared for these tests that many could say are "make it or break it". People say that without a certain ACT or SAT score, some colleges won't even consider you. I've seen the students around me attending ACT tutoring, cramming SAT vocabulary, and being driven mad by the implications of these tests. With how it is now with nationalized tests, I think that the influx of more testing in Tennessee marks an even greater, negative change.

How do you think we should approach education standards?

I think that standards can be essential to a well-functioning education system. If the standards created are appropriately tied to subject matter and agreed on by educators, while still allowing the educators to be flexible in the methods of instruction, I think that standards are very valuable. Flexible and open standards can allow educators to work together in a way that's more beneficial to the student. I think that the rigid structure that's arising with Common Core is detrimental towards a proper educational system.

What were your experiences with the education system in China, and what lessons should we take from this?

In my experience with the Chinese education system, a lot of the teaching and learning style is regimented. Speaking to the students there and even being there, you see that a lot of the teaching and even the thought process is based towards testing. A lot of students are focused completely on schoolwork and seem lost when it comes to personal opinions, because their education has shifted more towards memorization and regurgitation for testing. Students can tell you the precise number of words they need to know to pass an entrance exam, but often times if you ask for a simple opinion, you can expect blank stares.

From the students that I was with at a recent program, I've heard about the intensive measures that students will go towards to do well on a test. Whether it's locking themselves in an isolated room and cramming for days on end or taking medication to reduce any biological influences on testing, I've seen that testing has taken over a lot of their lives. I think that we can learn a lot from this. Students in China are striving to attend schools in the US for a reason; we pride ourselves on being a society of free-thinkers. America has become a world power due to our innovative thinking - a thinking that is being oppressed in favor of standardized capability. I believe that if we're continuing down this spiral of standardization, a lot of the creative mindset that we develop in schools will instead be taken over by sheer memorization and regurgitation.

What are your own next steps in your education? 

At this moment in time, I'm still in the process of applying to more schools. Though I'm still not sure where I will be going, I hope to be able to pursue my interests through higher education in the future.

What do you think of Kenneth Ye's perspective? Is our pursuit of standardization leading us toward conformity and away from creativity?

Continue the dialogue on Twitter with Kenneth Ye and Anthony Cody.

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