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Emphasis on standardized testing has transformed school textbooks

Sara Thompson
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily TribuneThese textbooks are on display at the Lake Tahoe Unified School District office for review by the public.
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Textbooks in schools are designed for standardized testing more so now than ever before.

South Tahoe High School will adopt three new textbooks for the coming school year in English, history and economics.

When STHS English Department chair Janna Gard began teaching in 1976, she said the curriculum was literature-based and taught from novels.

“You taught writing through literature,” Gard said.

Because of the combination of California’s direction for standardized tests and the creation of the No Child Left Behind Act, English textbooks have moved away from novels and stories. Textbooks instead teach students to pass the test, she said.

“I would have never have taught with anthologies 20 years ago, and now I’m expected to,” Gard said.

Before standardized testing, school districts had performance assessments. A student wrote an essay for English, ran a lab for science, worked out math problems for mathematics and so on. Now, all that is gone, and the state emphasizes multiple-choice tests, Gard said.

“You can’t learn how to write if you don’t write,” she said.

STHS Principal Ivone Larson said more freedom for selecting textbooks is given to high schools than with grades K-8. Those grades can only choose between state-approved textbooks, she said.

When textbooks are selected, teachers design their courses, research which textbooks best suits the course and then put the selected texts on public display for 30 days. Afterward, the textbooks then go before the school board to decide if they’re worthy of adoption in the school’s curriculum, Larson said.

When the process is complete, the school then may purchase the textbooks, Larson said.

When it comes to textbooks, the needs and size of school districts in California and Texas make them the big dogs in the printing world, Gard said.

California publishes a blueprint for the testing standards, and publishers write textbooks to fit state standards.

Since Lake Tahoe Unified School District is a Program Improvement district, the school can be limited with textbook choices, Larson said.

Mandates can be put in place so districts adopt certain textbooks. This hasn’t occurred at the high school.

If a district isn’t mandated to use certain textbooks, they can be encouraged to do so, Gard said.

As a teacher, Gard said her concern is that students don’t experience the ongoing character development with a novel or a play. Along with complicated themes, narrative themes develop as well, which aren’t necessarily conveyed in short pieces.

“It’s less of a focus on novels and more of a focus on functional literature than fictional literature,” Gard said. “It’s much more based on hitting all the standards at every chapter rather than the literature.”


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