Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Standardized Testing Squelches School Fieldtrips - Yet Another Reason To Homeschool

Another casualty of public school high stakes testing is the class fieldtrip. What a terrible thing. Unfortunately, for public school kids the fieldtrip is going the way of the dinosaurs.

Yet another reason to homeschool.
Field trips are one of the key staples of homeschooling.
You study something, and take your child out into the real world and experience the museum, the factory, the artisan, the theater, the symphony, the beach, whatever.
The world is our classroom.
It really and truly is.

Not so for those shackled in the brick school buildings and enslaved by the dreaded "standardized tests". Here in CT, public school students are subjected to the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT) which are supposed to measure how well teachers are teaching the curriculum and how well the kids are learning. This past year the results were not at all stellar.

Everyone is also all agog over the "achievement gap" between urban and suburban kids. And yet, they are willing to deny kids the wonderful experience of exploration and learning off school grounds. This is particularly devastating, I think, to urban and "underprivileged kids" who otherwise have little or no opportunity to visit museums and other worthwhile places.

An article in the Hartford Courant,"Field Trips Fading Fast In An Age Of Testing" (by Daniela Altimari) has this to report:
For today's students, such experiences are increasingly elusive. Tight budgets and rising gas prices, concerns about safety and the sheer hassle of taking kids out into the world are leading some schools to reduce or eliminate field trips.

And now there's a powerful new force keeping students in their seats during the school day: the drive to boost performance on standardized tests. That has led principals to jettison "extras" such as field trips in their quest to wring every minute of instructional time from an already crammed school day.

In other words, an afternoon spent gazing at masterpieces in an art museum is getting harder to justify.

"We have a limited amount of time for instruction," said Karen List, an assistant superintendent in West Hartford. "Given all the demands that are placed upon us these days, we want to make sure every single moment is a valuable moment."

The pressure to improve student performance is especially intense in urban school systems struggling beneath the weight of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. James Thompson, the assistant superintendent in Hartford, said his district is reviewing its field trip policy to make sure every excursion connects to a classroom lesson.

"Schools are still taking field trips, but we want to make sure those trips are in line with the standards," he said.
What a terrible shame that in the name of "standards" public school kids do not have more opportunities to get out and see what many fine museums and other interesting places have to offer. And what an equal tragedy it is that our fine art and history museums are losing incredible amounts in terms of revenue and attendance.

I remember when I was on the board of a local history museum that we were told by many local schools that the kids would no longer be participating in the field trips they had done in the past, because the schools could not show how, "the field trip would significantly contribute to higher CMT scores". We struggled with how to get schools to continue to come. We even lowered admission prices because our only interest was really to have the kids learn from our exhibits. I see that things have not changed, and if anything it has gotten much worse.

According to the report in the Courant:
Despite that, some institutions that cater to schools say they are noticing a sharp drop in attendance. The number of students visiting the Wadsworth Atheneum dropped from 17,742 during the 2005-06 academic year to 12,221 last year. During that same span, the number of visitors from Hartford schools fell from about 5,000 to about 3,000.

Museum officials aren't sure why school attendance has slipped. "We've done nothing differently. Our programs continue to build," said Dawn Salerno, associate museum educator for school and family audiences. "It makes us wonder what's going on at the school level."

The dwindling number of school groups from Hartford is especially vexing. City students receive free admission; even the cost of transportation is covered.

Museum staff members plan to meet with educators from around the state. "We need to ask the question, 'Why aren't you sending students, and what more can we do?'" Salerno said, adding that she understand the enormous pressure facing schools these days. "They have too much to focus on."

It was with a somewhat heavy heart that Nancy DePalma, principal of Whiting Lane Elementary School in West Hartford, opted to eliminate a popular fourth-grade field trip to Ellis Island. Although the trip resonated strongly in a school with a sizable immigrant population, it was canceled because of spiraling costs, safety worries and the demands of an increasingly rich curriculum.

"It's hard for me. My dad came through Ellis Island," DePalma said. "But the reality is, can we find other ways for kids to get these experiences? When we pull kids out [during] the instructional day, are we getting the best bang for our buck?"

Institutions that depend on school groups are looking for new ways to make themselves relevant in an age when test scores trump all.

At the Talcott Mountain Science Center in Avon, the staff worked with educators in West Hartford to develop a program on the solar system that reflects the content of the Connecticut Mastery Test. "The standards are written specifically to say what the learning outcomes should be," said Jonathan Craig, the center's director. "It's making us rework some of the things we do and giving us new opportunities, too. ... It's a matter of adapting to the changing environment."

Even Old Sturbridge Village, a mainstay on the school field trip calendar for several generations, has begun offering enticements such as free admission to schools. The outdoor history museum also is developing programs that reinforce educational standards in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the three states that provide Old Sturbridge Village with the bulk of its visitors.

"We're having to align what we do with what students are being assessed on," said Shawn Parker, head of the education division. "We're trying to make sure we can show teachers that we can be part of their toolbox for fulfilling what's expected of them."
The article quotes educators in my own town; West Hartford. That is really so sad for me to read. We spend so much money on education, and yet these kids will no longer be able to take advantage of the wonderful historical places in and around CT. This problem also seems to turn museums and other institutions on their heads to also begin "teaching to the test". Will museums now become a place that shares their archives and materials only in a predetermined way - one which also bows to the standards set by others, like the Department of Education?

Education standards micro managed by the state and federal government are choking education. They are eliminating some of the most enriching experiences that kids can have. It is truly pitiful. I guess kids will just have to stick their noses in a book if they want to see the Statute of Liberty, or paintings by Renoir, or learn about Mark Twain. They can hear recordings in class of musical works instead of experiencing a live performance of the local symphony. Somehow they will just have to settle for in house lessons, and what a terrible loss for them.

Meanwhile homeschoolers explore their world, do well on the SAT's/ACT's, and get into really good colleges.