Teaching (to the) Tests

I was a little appalled to find out last week that my son is spending multiple days taking PSSA standardized tests in his school, a ritual that he shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes at, a teenager’s damning assessment that says wordlessly that this-is-just-one-more-stupid-thing-adults-make-me-do-for-my-own-good.

Teenage boys are notoriously bored with school and sneer at book-learning.  Think Huckleberry Finn as only one great American example.  So I think my son’s attitude about school is not particularly new.  But whereas Twain’s hero, in a great romantic tradition, saw books themselves as corrupt and the learning they provided as a corrupter of virtuous instincts, nothing is further from the truth for  my son.  He reads ravenously, much more than I did at his age, which is saying quite a bit.  And the level and range of his interests astonish me, from jazz poetry and history, to hindu mysticism, to the thickest of contemporary literary novels like Delillo’s Mao II and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.  When he bought Wallace’s Infinite Jest he was nearly giddy with delight.  “It’s like a giant two-fisted hamburger” he said laughing, holding it up to his open mouth. “Something you can eat up.”  This same boy who sees learning as a feast when left to the devices of books and their authors and his own imagination, seems to experience school as an emotional and intellectual Waste Land, a place he finds dull and dulling.

I can’t blame his teachers.  They are talented and caring.  But I can’t help wondering with a chorus of others, whether something has gone badly wrong with our approaches to schooling, approaches that trap teachers as surely as they enervate students, or at least many male students.

I tend to agree with this blog from Diane Ravitch, who I find to be one of our most interesting commentators on education, if only because she has become so unpredictable and yet so incisive in her analyses. From the NYRB, “Flunking Arne Duncan”

Will Duncan’s policies improve public education?

No. Under pressure to teach to tests—which assess only English and math skills—many districts are reducing the time available for teaching the arts, history, civics, foreign languages, physical education, and other non-tested subjects. (Other districts are spending scarce dollars to create new tests for the arts, physical education, and those other subjects so they can evaluate all their teachers, not just those who teach reading and mathematics.) Reducing the time available for the arts, history, and other subjects will not improve education. Putting more time and money into testing reduces the time and money available for instruction. None of this promotes good education. None of this supports love of learning or good character or any other ideals for education. Such a mechanistic, anti-intellectual approach would not be tolerated for President Obama’s children, who attend an excellent private school. It should not be tolerated for the nation’s children, 90 percent of whom attend public schools. Grade: F.

Of course, I care about this for my son, and I am thankful to God that he is getting through his high school education before the ax has cleaved away programs in the arts and diminished offering in other areas.  But I also care about this as an educator and administrator in a college.  In the first place, it is impossible to imagine that we will have students who are effective writers if they have no historical sense, no understanding of the arts, less exposure to the civic virtues, and fewer opportunities to read and think in languages other than their own.  It is impossible to imagine that such students–even scoring better on a writing or a math exam–are better prepared for college than students from a generation ago, before we started worrying about their being left behind.  It is impossible to imagine that we are getting a better student simply because they can do a math problem successfully when they have never had to struggle to draw a picture or understand a symphony or reach in to the past to engage the worlds of the ancients before them.
If this is the education we are giving them, we are producing neither saints or scholars.  We may be producing a generation of students (perhaps boys especially) who are bored mindless and who will look for their learning in more likely places, like the cover of a book for which no one will think to devise a test.

6 thoughts on “Teaching (to the) Tests

  1. Jeff Rioux

    Amen. Absolutely. Here are things I heard my kids and their friends say as we walked home from school during the preparation weeks before PSSA’s:
    -“We don’t do Social Studies anymore because we are getting ready for PSSA’s.”
    -“We have double Math classes now and no reading because we have to improve our Math scores.”
    -“We are skipping Science and Social Studies.”
    -“We had an assembly today. It was a pep rally for the PSSA’s.”

    At the assembly, they sang these lyrics to the Bon Jovi song: “Whoa! We’re almost there. Oooh! On the PSSA’s. If we do our best, we’ll make it I swear.”

    My daughter also complained about the 4sight tests they have to take, which are like practice and predictor tests for the PSSA’s. She says they take them three times a year. With all of this prep for testing, and testing, there is surely less time for teaching.

  2. Jenny Zimmerman

    In the UK, we do “Mock” exams in December. Students learn everything in year 10 and year 11 till December, and January through May/June is revision… meaning, they don’t learn ANYTHING new… It makes teaching boring. It makes class boring. But the UKs results are usually better than the US’s on the PISA…

    Oh and btw, students only need to pass 33% of the GCSE math exam to get a C.

    This is why I work with ESL students who join the school in year 10-11, know very little English, and work their socks off to pass their exams. The pace is much quicker, the lessons lively and basically revision-less, and they tend to do just as well as their English counterparts who have twice as long to learn the material.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      I think American performance on tests has many different components. I think the excessively long summer breaks are embedded psychologically and probably difficult to dislodge, but I think they are a disaster pedagogically. If I’m trying to become competent at playing an instrument, I might take occasional breaks, but I couldn’t meaningfully take a break for three and a half months out of every twelve and expect to be a really high achiever. Similarly, I might vary workouts and workout more at some times than others, but I couldn’t meaningfully take 3 or 4 months completely off every year and expect to be in consistently good physical condition. t think its basically the same thing with math or with reading or with science. The brain needs pauses and refreshment, but it also needs consistent work.

      1. Jenny Zimmerman

        I think you’re right, taking a mental break for that long does have it’s drawbacks. But what I meant was that the UK system doesn’t have the breadth of knowledge that the US one does (or at least used to). The UK studies a few things very in depth and I think that it doesn’t do it very well, at least, not in my experience. The range of learning just doesn’t happen unless one goes to a grammar school, and this is sort of recognized. In the final 2 years of education, most students will study 1 full length novel (usually Of Mice and Men), an excerpt from a Shakespeare play, 1 full length play, and 15 poems with some writing thrown in for flair. When asked if I could pad the poetry, I was told not to, because it would confuse them to teach them poems that wouldn’t be on the exam….

      2. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

        It seems to me that the American system is becoming more and more like the British system–with all of its flaws and none of its virtues. In Delbanco’s book, which I blogged on today, he says that the notion of the liberal arts college with a broad liberal education for all is uniquely American, as American an export as jazz, and yet we are abandoning it like yesterdays garbage as if it were not a unique cultural treasure, something we truly have to offer the world.

  3. Pingback: Education is for…passing tests | Read, Write, Now

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