To the Next President of the United States of America,
I hope this letter finds you well. My name is Sofie, and as a high school student, I have some concerns about the state of our education system.
Ah, education. The bane of the existence of students everywhere, though in few places is it more pronounced than in America. And it’s not difficult to see why. According to apa.org, every year 48% of students attend counselors for mental health concerns, 10% are hospitalized for mental health concerns, 23% injure themselves without suicidal intent, 30% consider suicide, and 8% attempt suicide.
Homework is a large contributor to this issue, but you have little control over that, I understand. The same applies to school start times and grading systems, both of which come with a host of problems. However, something you do have a say in is testing, which is a large contributor to anxiety in students. Not only do the very nature of the tests themselves imply that every student can and will learn the same material in the same way, but they stress out students who simply don’t test well; they prevent teachers from teaching the material in ways that actually interest the students; they penalize teachers whose students get low scores, making it harder for them to improve their scores in the future; they drive students to cheat and teachers to help them do so; and the only people that actually benefit from the tests are the companies that make them.
Many of the same problems are found in Common Core. It requires students in math to learn not just one way to reach an answer, but all of them. If a student fails to learn every single way of doing something, they fail the standardized tests. If this happens to enough students, their teachers may be fired, the school will lose money, and it may eventually close.
Budget cuts are another reason that the school systems are suffering. As I mentioned before, teachers whose students score low on mandatory tests are penalized. This means their pay can be slashed, they can lose funding, and in some cases, the school would be closed. But it goes further than that. Everything started when we learned that we were falling behind other countries in subjects like math and science. Terrified of not being the best, we focused our energy on the core classes, trying to raise the bar for everyone so we could continue to be the best. Unfortunately, this meant we were taking money away from courses that were considered more extracurricular like Home Economics, Shop, the arts, and music. You know, the classes that teach you how to do things you’ll actually need in real life. This has been met with much derision; for example, a popular meme shows a student asking the school system, “What are taxes and how do I pay them?” The school system responds, “Worry not. Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.” The many variations on this (“Dear math, stop asking us to find your x. She’s not coming back,” “Harry Potter taught me to stand up for what I believe. Thank you, school, for teaching me the gradient of a line,” etc.) are more demonstrative of how unhelpful testing culture is than any test on the topic could ever be.
However, there is still hope. At the end of last year, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which is a large improvement over its predecessor. For example, in testing, where NCLB required students to take annual tests on math and English in third through eighth grades, the ESSA gives states the flexibility to determine when to administer those tests (all at once, in bits and pieces throughout the year, etc.). Common Core didn’t exist when NCLB was created, but the ESSA does not require states to use Common Core at all. All this is put into action in the 2017-18 school year, which explains why it’s not a thing you’ll see in schools today.
Now, these are good steps in the right direction, but we can do more. Why do we have to put so much weight on these tests? In fact, why do we have them at all? Shouldn’t the grades be what determines our country’s rank in the school systems? And why stop there? Shouldn’t the well-roundedness of our students - in layman’s terms, our ability to adult - be the defining factor in the rank of our country against others?
Just something for you to think about while admiring your new office.