The Full Measure of a Child

The Full Measure of a Child




Sarah Shaffer


Recent headlines contain worrisome statistics about the declining test scores of US kids as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment, but it’s the story behind the statistics that troubles me more. In our understandable concern that our schools aren’t giving our kids the best possible education, we’ve focused on standardized test scores, something that is easy to measure, but is not necessarily a reliable assessment of our children’s success and happiness. It’s a bit like the old joke about trying to find car keys lost in a field by looking under a street lamp because that’s where the light is. How did we end up in this fix? A bit of history is in order. According to a December podcast discussing “America’s Education Problem” on The Daily, our obsession with standardized testing got off to a competitive start in 1957, the year Russia beat us into space. We wanted to make sure we’d never again be second-best. A major focus ever since has been on how well youngsters in the United States stack up against their age cohorts across the globe. In an attempt to compare apples to apples, we rely on standardized tests that highlight skills in reading and math. Not all the competition is international. Here at home, it’s district against district, school against school. We’ve spent billions of dollars meeting the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Obama-era Race to the Top program dedicated $4 billion to schools that adopted the Common Core.


But what if our race to the top has resulted in a race to the bottom, at least in terms of taking the fun out of learning? In our rush to get back to the basics, we may have forgotten something very basic: there’s profound and genuine joy to be found in mastering new skills. I love watching the faces of the kids in my science and nature programs light up when they suddenly grasp the beauty of an idea. And it’s not only a mastery of intellectual concepts that defines growth in a child. I’ve had kids enroll in my camps who’ve never walked on anything but a city sidewalk. They aren’t the only ones who are smiling when they eventually exchange their tentative city gait for a carefree sprint down a woodland trail. I love watching a shy child make new friends. One of my fondest memories is seeing the skill with which one little boy mimicked, and anticipated, the exact rhythm of a guest drummer. Teaching to the test has not only taken the thrill out of learning, but it has also failed to raise test scores. I’m an avid reader. Of course I understand the importance of learning to read and of mastering math skills. It’s just that unless we want to create a nation of workers with standardized skillsets, I think there are better ways than standardized testing to develop and take the measure of a child. I suggest we start by putting the fun back in fundamentals!


Sarah Shaffer, award-winning educator, has been offering unique after-school enrichment and outdoor science and nature programs for children, parents, and teachers for over twenty-five years. More information about Sarah’s Science can be found at
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