Student Response to Film: “Race to Nowhere”: Standardized Failures By Ryan Sandsness

This Blog Post is from Knowgenetics and was originally posted on April 3, 2013

CEE Event: Film Screening: Race to Nowhere

By Ryan Sandsness

The study of genetics, just like any other science, is about curiosity, not the memorization of facts. When first learning a scientific concept, one must go through the process of reading, remembering, and understanding the ideas that have been presented. However once this basic requisite is met, science becomes so much more than that: an exploration, an investigation, a problem to be solved, an issue to be debated, NOT bullet points to be transferred from a textbook to a test. How do you think these concepts and facts were first discovered? Somebody took the initiative to approach a problem and search for a solution through a scientific process. They devised a method or a mechanism never tried before, or they expanded upon the work of another individual. They created something new; they did not simply puppet the ideas before them, but built upon them.

However a disturbing trend has emerged within the past decade, shifting the focus of education away from problem solving instead to standardization and monotony. The effects of this transformation are just beginning to be studied and understood. Recently they were brought to my attention, by a film quickly gaining popularity, called Race to Nowhere. In the film the director tries to shed light on the growing problems and results of an ineffective “teach to the test” philosophy currently existing in the American school system. To understand how such emphasis was placed on standardized tests we must go back to the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. In the legislation of the bill, the Statement of Purpose reads:

ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards so that students, teachers, parents, and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement.

This means that educators are now, more than ever, held accountable for a child’s academic success. In theory this sounds great, but complications arise when it comes to the tools used to measure academic success, a.k.a. standardized tests.

Since reading and math are emphasized on standardized tests, science education has been marginalized. A 2011 study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley revealed that 40% of California elementary school teachers surveyed spent 60 minutes or less a week teaching science. The relentless standardized testing that begins in elementary school and continues to the SAT, ACT, and CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam), has also bred a culture in which material is learned in order to pass a test. This has robbed students of the joy of learning and created an atmosphere where information is acquired, regurgitated on a scantron, and jettisoned from memory. A five-year study released in 2007 by the University of Maryland showed “declines in teaching higher-order thinking, in the amount of time spent on complex assignments, and in the actual amount of high cognitive content in the curriculum”. What does this mean for the field of genetics and the scientific community at large? The students that have been indoctrinated in this system of high-stakes testing for the past 10 years are now reaching college and graduate level education. Students have been programmed to think rigidly and only within the testable guidelines. But what happens in the real world when things begin to deviate from what is expected? As medical professionals how are these students going to approach novel diseases and diagnoses when they haven’t been taught how to think outside the box? The ability to think creatively, passionately, and critically has generated scientific discovery for the past 400 years. If this process begins to fade away in favor of a uniform way of thinking, the United States might find itself stuck in the back of the pack in terms of global scientific relevance.

As stated before, the ramifications of this shift in the education system are just beginning to be taken into account; yet the effects may continue for years. If this trend of standardized testing to measure academic success continues, we might all be stripped of our scientific curiosity.

“Science does not know its debt to imagination”- Ralph Waldo Emerson



PL 107-110, No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Sec. 1001 107th Cong., U.S. G.P.O. (2001) (enacted). Print.

“High Hopes- Few Opportunities. The Status of Science Education in California.” 2011. Lawrence Hall of Science. University of California Berkeley.

Valli and Croniger. “High Quality Teaching of Foundational Skills in Mathematics and Reading”. 2007.

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