This blog posting is excerpted from an article I wrote which was published in “California English” Magazine in 2003. It’s not like my usual rather personal topics, but I think it’s an important thing to consider.
Several years ago I was assigned to create a remedial project focused on a specific group of students, namely the ones who were “not making it.” These were not totally unsuccessful students, but those who were in that zone of test scores which, if brought up just a little, would change the test profile of the school. So the purpose for the program was not only to help students, but also to make the school’s statistical profile look better to the State.
While my personal belief is that teaching for testing is a rather unsavory academic notion, it was my belief that these students could use help in their academic lives; it was my hope that they could be helped. So I devised a curriculum which would be both helpful and interesting for them.
Though there were records from many standardized tests the students had taken, they did not reveal just where these children fit into the testing picture. How did they test? Was it testing skill they lacked? Information? The test scores told me the result, but nothing about the process each student went through to arrive at the result. What the test scores indicated was that these students were not able to understand material which others at their grade level did.
The first task was to give them a test with a vocabulary component and a reading section. The vocabulary became progressively more difficult through the test, with words ranging from first to twelfth grade level. The reading passages were arranged similarly. This gradual change in complexity would enable me to chart each student’s level on a computerized scan sheet.
The plan was to have the students take the test, and then get them to go over the test to see why they had made errors. Lack of knowledge would definitely be one reason, but I was also interested to see how much of the difficulty stemmed from a lack of knowledge about test-taking itself. And so we began.
First came the vocabulary. In this section there were few surprises. Most students scored fairly well on the first half, but on the second half the results were considerably lower. Overall, the scores were in the fourth and fifth grade range, with a few much lower and some higher. There was no question that the vocabulary of these students was lacking, which of course was bound to contribute to their lack of understanding. The reading comprehension scores were also quite low for the whole class.
The graded computer forms – which had the correct answer printed next to any wrong answer – were returned to the students along with the actual reading test. They were paired with another student, and I told them to read each of the reading selections again. Their task was to find the evidence in the paragraph that led them to answer the questions the way they did. In this way they could analyze their thinking to see how they had arrived at their answers. If they got the question wrong, they had to find not only the reasoning behind their wrong answer, but also locate the evidence in the paragraph for the correct answer.
The students were animated and interested. But soon there was a bit of unrest, as a rather interesting situation developed. Many of the students were not sure that their answers were wrong. They defended their choices, despite the fact that they were “wrong” according to the computerized answer sheet.
Interesting dialogues began to take place.
“Miss Rubin, could you come here?”
“Yes, Juan, what is it?”
“Well, we have a question about the answer for this paragraph. See, the guy spilled the container of cream in the back of the truck. They ask what would happen next, and it says that the answer should be ‘he went back to his dairy’. I know that’s what he would do, but wouldn’t ‘b’ – the price of cream would go up – also be true?
“Well, what would happen immediately next?” I asked Juan.
“Oh, yeah, I can see that. He would go back first. But the price of cream would go up, wouldn’t it, because there’s less cream to sell. Right?”
Well, here is Juan, who can reason the law of supply and demand based on a small incident in a paragraph, and explain his reasoning. He definitely understood the paragraph, yet he is scoring poorly on the reading test.
Then came Lorraine. “Miss Rubin, could you come here?”
I walked over and she presented me with her problem.
“In this paragraph about the hunter and the lion, it asks what would happen next. It says that the answer is ‘the hunter shot the lion.’ But that really depends on who the story is for. I mean, if this is a story for grownups, yeah, the guy would shoot the lion. But if it’s a story for kids, the answer would be ‘c, the lion ran away’.”
So Lorraine is analyzing the paragraph with respect to the audience for which the passage was written, and, based on her sound judgment, she writes an answer which is “wrong.” Her answer is not based on a lack of understanding, and is, in fact, quite sophisticated in its reasoning. But her answer is based on thinking which is not taken into account by the test-maker.
Many of the students had this sort of problem. Their answers were “wrong,” but not because they had just guessed wrong, or because they didn’t understand the passage. Their answers were considered incorrect because their ability to reason was still intact, and prevented them from thinking like the test maker. They had, in many cases, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills which rendered them unable to figure out the “right” answers. They scored lower on the test because they were thinking and reasoning too much, not because they couldn’t read or understand.
So my question is this: Why are we devoting so much time to testing students instead of teaching them? We in the United States used to pride ourselves on our ability to go beyond the automaton answers, to think outside the box. And yet the tests we give students force them more and more to function in the box, not reasoning and examining, but looking for the “right” answer according to the test maker.
It’s rather ironic that Japan has recently been hiring American teachers to teach children how to think and reason creatively, because for so many years they were teaching them to simply get the right answer.
Some say we are testing children for accountability, so we can see if the children are really learning. This is a reasonable thing to expect. But does testing tell us whether students are learning, or does it only tell us if we have managed to teach them what’s on the test, and how to take the test? Are we making our students into glib learners who can answer the questions, but really know very little? And, if students begin to pass these tests in larger numbers, is that a good thing?
Testing is based on the idea that all students should be prepared to go to college. Yet there are many students who would benefit from a vocational education which could lead to a profession in graphics, auto mechanics, welding, furniture making or culinary arts; but there is no longer a place in most high schools for them to learn what they need. And, though they might be highly gifted in designing, or drama, or in mechanical areas, students who are not linguistically or mathematically oriented may do poorly on tests, and thus are labeled as “underachievers,” “slow” or worse. The result – students who can’t get into college, are not really suited to college, but who are not trained or educated for anything else.
We have lost a generation of craftsmen and artisans by trying to fit everyone into the college-bound mold. I think we need a shift in the whole vision of school and its purpose. Our schools should provide students the opportunity to develop their skills outside the academic arena. Ultimately, schools should be places in which young people learn to be good citizens, and good humans. They do this through having a knowledge of the world, and through finding the ways in which they can best use their gifts to contribute to the world. As we test our children to assure they fit the mold, and stifle all those who do not, think how much we are losing.