I have a confession this morning. I probably shouldn’t be a teacher. I’m just not smart enough. No, no…it’s true. Look at my old test scores. From sixth grade forward, I was one of those kids who got the “are you kidding?” math scores. I was the one who stayed after school for tutoring so I could pass geometry. I was the one who never understood algebra. I was the one who just couldn’t do “word problems” without a map, a chart, and a calculator. If it started out with “a cow tied to a stake on a six foot rope will…”, or “a train going 50mph for two hours is…” I was ready to cry! And any test with a time limit, especially a math test with a time limit, fogged up my brain as soon as I saw the clock!
I think about those days when I listen to the preparations for spring testing. While our grade level doesn’t directly participate in the BIG tests, the state achievement tests, we do feel the pressure to prepare our students for first grade, and first grade wants to develop great second graders, and third grade expects everyone to make a wonderful score on that first BIG test. And of course the kindergartners are not exempt from testing- we do have two structured tests that we give twice a year to evaluate language and math skills.
And that, I believe is the foundation of our testing problems. Language and math are the bullies of the testing world. If you don’t have good language and math skills you are a failure. Oh, we never say that. Parents never say that. But when the scores are tabulated that’s how many students feel. And while I’ll admit that language skills are VERY important to me and I spend the majority of my teaching time on phonics and reading I know in my heart that many of my students will make a good living and a good life with less than perfect language arts skills. They will even go on to get good grades in college while still saying “he done it” and misspelling “whether”.
I also know that a good calculator, a good banker, and perhaps an annual visit with an accountant will satisfy most of their real life math needs.
What we seem to overlook and seldom test are the dozens of other areas of knowledge and skills that not only make for a well-rounded educated citizen, but will support many of our students in the future. The original purpose of education was to prepare a child for LIFE. It was thought that a person needed to be educated in the basic elements of knowledge common to most of society and trained in a set of skills that would make him self-supporting, rather than a burden to that society. To that end, most students were trained in their strongest areas of natural talent or skill. Some of the earliest testing was intended to find those strengths, not pinpoint weaknesses.
We have changed the basic premise of education over the years to “preparation for college”. While that may be a worthy goal for many students, it is not THE goal or THE answer for success for every student. Many of the unemployed walking the streets right now HAVE a college degree.
So if the goal of education is to prepare every student for college, then of course the standards and testing must be set for that goal and no other. Every student must read like a scholar and calculate like a genius. Right? So what happens to the high school student who can draw, but reads at a third grade level? What happens to the one who can make anything grow, but can’t remember how to figure percentages? Or the one who can sing like an angel, but can’t spell “symphony”? Or the “horse whisperer” who doesn’t know a pronoun from an adverb? Or the fabulous cook who can’t sit still long enough to complete a test much less pass it? They end up feeling like a failure every spring!
What I fear most about testing is that many of our students won’t recover from the emotional damage of “test failure” that they incur each spring. It is the natural tendency of parents and teachers to look at the lowest scores and try to improve them. That in turn means looking at the lowest students and trying to improve them. It means focusing on what we are doing wrong and working together to make it better. But somehow it doesn’t quite translate that way to a child. My own grandchild often looks at her weakest areas with such intense scrutiny that she overlooks her strengths. I still think of myself as a person who “doesn’t test well”. I still think of myself as “poor at math” even though I made good grades in college. Those early test experiences stick with us! And if we NEVER test a child’s areas of strength- and that can very well happen in our current system- then they NEVER experience the joy of success!
Since I don’t have the time or space to ramble on forever, here are some other random thoughts and questions about education that I feel deserve some thought and attention from all of us:
- If great test scores are THE measure of success for students, teachers, and school districts then that obviously, because of the nature of people, encourages two things: teaching only test skills and information, and cheating. Both of those have already been proven to occur in some major school districts across the nation.
- If we want every child to attend college, then why not make the first two years mandatory and FREE, just like high school?
- If teachers and schools are to be rated and paid according to student performance, then shouldn’t parents be required to give us a child with a set of minimum skills and behaviors? Perhaps we could go back to the “entrance exam” concept. That way every class would contain only students who were prepared to learn! If you think that sounds ludicrous, then back up to the beginning sentence and read it again. It is equally ludicrous to believe that I can stand in front of a classroom and deliver a lesson that will be interpreted and applied equally by twenty students. I’ve been teaching my students the “days of the week” for over 150 days and I still have two students who cannot recite them correctly. Is that truly my fault?
Okay, off the soapbox. Your turn.
Have a thoughtful day.