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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Testing Tests

Puzzled

The other day I heard from a colleague who has worked in children’s books for many years. He was just back from IRA and said that this time he finally saw it: NCLB had won. Teachers really were not looking for trade books. Instead they wanted customizable sets that they could use to help prepare kids for testing. I’ve had my first taste of that in my house, as my third grader took his battery of state tests last week. And I don’t know what to make of this environment. 

On the one hand, there is at least some evidence that year after year of test prep and testing improves, or at least slightly improves the overall performance of a school system. Did you see this article in the Times? tinyurl.com/qo9l3d It is about the improvement in NYC public schools. Of course you can be a cynic and say that if you teach to a test, kids will do better on that test. It does not mean they are learning more. But lets assume that on a broad baseline level this constant testing and measuring may do more to bring the basics to all students. At the very least, it matters to many stakeholders that the scores improve. And looking at it from the POV of the third graders in my son’s class — after a year of knowing the big test was coming, they got through it, it was not so bad. So perhaps they have begun acquiring some test taking skills which probably will be useful to them as they get on the ladder of college testing later on. 

On the other hand, for Mother’s Day we went to the Metropolitan Museum with Marina’s mom and our two boys. By good fortune, we arrived just as two groups of kids-with-docents were about to set off. My third grader went with a teacher to explore Asian art. They sat in front of this ceramic statue tinyurl.com/ol4whu, talked about what they thought it was, and then sketched it. The kids got that it was someone meditating, they learned about Chinese art, they talked about Buddhism, they stretched their minds. The worksheets I see my son bring home treat him as stupid, as some kind of computer whose program is being tested to make sure it accurately records and transmits bits of information. The Met group treated the students as smart — as capable of thinking, weighing evidence, developing theories, and exploring art, history, culture. 

Of course schools are happy if parents take their kids to museums. Great, supplement your kid’s education, they say. We will take care of the basics, you go further. Maybe. Maybe that is all that is possible now for public education which must meet so many needs with limited budgets. But it just does not feel right to have the real mental growth take place outside of the school. And doesn’t that create a new form of educational divide — between the parents who have the time, knowledge, will, and funds to supplement and those who don’t? Aren’t we once again creating a schooling for plebs who master the three Rs but not thinking and a schooling for managers taught to develop their own ideas?

What do you think?

Comments

  1. Marina says:

    Perhaps it’s too personal to have Marc’s wife posting, but his description of our time at the museum does make my heart ache a bit. I am not anti-test, anti-accountability, or anti-public school, as someone who is a product of the public schools. But we do find something is missing, and what saddens me is that I am convinced just a bit more imagination and thought still could result in strong test results. Two examples: our son had a science test on the respitory system. I did the usual review with him that mostly consisted of spitting back facts. I have no trouble with that. Kids have to learn the facts, especially in the sciences. But since I had a little more energy that night, we took out a few other books on the body, housed in his four year old brother’s library (he is obsessed with the body, blood cells, organs, bones) and talked about how to visualize some of what my son had been memorizing. We looked at photographs of the lungs and heart and discussed it. Result: he scored 95.

    On the other hand, on a social studies test on the western expansion the same week, I was very tired and it was late. So I did a perfunctory review with the textbook. I could see he wasn’t really thinking it through, or visualizing in his mind what we talked about, even though he in general loves social studies, but we were both in a crabby mood. The result: 72.

  2. Jane Heitman Healy says:

    I have worked in and now work with public school libraries. GENERALIZATION ALERT: Schools now exist in an uber-test environment, where students are taught to take tests and in some grades, spend up to 3 weeks taking them, drawing them away from instructional time. The great irony is that current education & curriculum experts, as well as cognitive development experts, say the best way to learn is experiential or project-based (much like Marc’s son in the museum). I’m currently reading–and recommend– Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, a treatise on how schools are killing reading and how to solve the problem.

  3. Jane Heitman Healy says:

    I have worked in and now work with public school libraries. GENERALIZATION ALERT: Schools now exist in an uber-test environment, where students are taught to take tests and in some grades, spend up to 3 weeks taking them, drawing them away from instructional time. The great irony is that current education & curriculum experts, as well as cognitive development experts, say the best way to learn is experiential or project-based (much like Marc’s son in the museum). I’m currently reading–and recommend– Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, a treatise on how schools are killing reading and how to solve the problem.

  4. marc says:

    Jane: Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll read it too.

  5. Elizabeth at UnderageReading says:

    A teacher friend of mine argues that tests do little to distort education in elite schools (like the public schools I attended), since the students will by and large do well on the tests with only a little extra instruction in test-taking skills; but in schools where students struggle with tests, they come to dominate the curriculum — to the exclusion of gym, art, music, and now, in some places, even science.

  6. marc says:

    Elizabeth:

    I’d love to have someone study that — what degree of effect testing has in different kinds of pubic schools (income, magnet, elite). That way we could talk about a spectrum of effects.

  7. DEB HANSON says:

    Marc and Marina,
    I’ve let your posts sit and stew in my brain for 48 hours hoping to find a diplomatic way to respond. I’ve decided it’s too big a topic to do justice in a short comment here. But I will say that I feel your pain and think you bring some very valid questions to this topic of testing. I am more discouraged than ever by what I see happening in public education – at least here in FL. I feel like I am fighting a losing battle and I’ve been at it for many years… you are right. We are teaching to the tests. We’ve lost sight of the kids in the grand sea of data. The system cares about results (i.e. test scores) but could care less about whether kids enjoy reading and learning or whether they can think about and use what they learn to improve themselves as human beings or create new ideas or products. The focus is on data but not learning, on achievement but not thinking and doing. We are now testing our kids weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually… and the kids are getting more and more bored with school. I see them learning on their own time, when engaged in things that interest them. Marc, the museum lesson in which your kids were treated as smart and capable is what we need to be doing full-time in schools. Marina – your point is well-taken. I work in a school with near 70% of students on free/reduced lunch. A lot of my middle school kids are raising their own younger siblings because moms and dads are absent or working or worse. These kids will never have the opportunity to be coached by mom or taken to the museum for an enriching experience. Where do they fit in our world? Good question… If I had the resources to create my own school full of authentic learning and engaging activity, I would!

  8. DEB HANSON says:

    Marc and Marina,
    I’ve let your posts sit and stew in my brain for 48 hours hoping to find a diplomatic way to respond. I’ve decided it’s too big a topic to do justice in a short comment here. But I will say that I feel your pain and think you bring some very valid questions to this topic of testing. I am more discouraged than ever by what I see happening in public education – at least here in FL. I feel like I am fighting a losing battle and I’ve been at it for many years… you are right. We are teaching to the tests. We’ve lost sight of the kids in the grand sea of data. The system cares about results (i.e. test scores) but could care less about whether kids enjoy reading and learning or whether they can think about and use what they learn to improve themselves as human beings or create new ideas or products. The focus is on data but not learning, on achievement but not thinking and doing. We are now testing our kids weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually… and the kids are getting more and more bored with school. I see them learning on their own time, when engaged in things that interest them. Marc, the museum lesson in which your kids were treated as smart and capable is what we need to be doing full-time in schools. Marina – your point is well-taken. I work in a school with near 70% of students on free/reduced lunch. A lot of my middle school kids are raising their own younger siblings because moms and dads are absent or working or worse. These kids will never have the opportunity to be coached by mom or taken to the museum for an enriching experience. Where do they fit in our world? Good question… If I had the resources to create my own school full of authentic learning and engaging activity, I would!