Tag Archives: Diane Ravitch

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.