Dec 11

Know (a) Child Left Behind?

Posted by A Writer

I just administered my first final exam of the semester today, and as I watched my students busily scribble away in their blue books I started thinking about testing.  My exams have short answers (an irony which my students seem not to appreciate, walking out of the session shaking their cramped writing hands and smiling sheepishly) and essays, and I ask questions which require much more than one word answers.  Result?  A fair (I believe and have been told) and challenging (I believe and have been assured in no uncertain terms) exam which helps determine if the students have learned how to think about literature and the specific works we studied more deeply.  For most of my teaching career I've avoided the multiple choice/fill in the blank/true or false type of test like the plague because, well, they usually suck.  A lot.  The vast majority of those exams only assess whether the students have successfully managed to cram the exact knowledge they were told they would need into their caffeinated (and I hope that's all) brains for the two hours of the exam period, after which they will proceed to forget ninety-five percent of it.  Yes, I'm afraid the secret is out: cramming works exceptionally well in the short term and exceptionally poorly in the long term, and these exams ask (practically demand at gunpoint) you to cram like mad to get ready for them.  Good for test scores, great for speedy grading (ScanTron is your friend!), not good for real education.

Of course educators have known for years that there are some serious drawbacks to this model, and they've known something else too: exams themselves are really freaking evil–perhaps necessary evil(s), but evils nonetheless.  Because of all the things we do in our classrooms–presentations, discussions, activities, lectures, interpretive dances (those are the really good classes), the one item which contributes absolutely nothing to the actual educational process is the test.  Doesn't matter how well it's designed, how fair yet tough yet reasonable yet challenging it is, all a test is designed to do is assess progress: is this student getting it?  It generally doesn't even do a great job of determining what exactly the student isn't getting or how to help him or her get it in the future; it just says that whatever you thought you knew about x subject, you didn't.  It's the Check Engine light of the educational process; something's wrong, but who the hell knows what.  Beyond that it's a total waste of time.  Students learn nothing from even the most carefully structured exams (except to avoid them whenever possible), and the angst created by the onrushing specter of a test at any level almost overrides the value of having it as a measuring tool.  Still, students need to get some kind of assessment, however broad and imperfect; teachers and parents need to understand if the students aren't grasping what they need to, and tests are one of the few ways that we can determine that fact.  Just as long as we don't make it the centerpiece of our educational strategy.  Which we wouldn't do, because we trust teachers to, by and large, do what's best for the students, right?


Yeah.  You see, the problem is that we've stopped trusting teachers on all levels (probably everywhere to a degree, but certainly in America) because we've begun to sense something is radically wrong with the educational system.  Reading and writing skills are diminishing, American students are falling farther and farther behind in math and science, and we're all losing ground to other nations (I think politicians would all instantly collapse if they couldn't use race-running analogies at least once a day).  A whole host of complex factors have gone into creating this problem: economic disparities among school districts, the increasing influence of the Internet (bad bloggers!  Bad!), less parental involvement (itself owing to a host of complex factors), and so on.  Thus, what we need is a multi-faceted approach which allows for local decision making and a fast, agile national advisory system made up of experienced educators, parents and students (why yes, they might indeed have something valuable to contribute about the education they are currently experiencing!) to make suggestions about further professional development of faculty, greater educational opportunities for students, and addressing the social conditions which impact the educational process.  Right?

No, silly rabbit…what we actually need is more testing.  Because that's the message of the astonishingly cynically named No Child Left Behind policy, President Bush's grand vision of education in the future.  And like all things from the minds of the Bush Administration, the vision is an extremely simple one: obviously, the reason education isn't working in this country is because the educators aren't working hard enough.  The fault, Dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in our…well, you know.  Yep, for too long the professional educators of this country have gotten away with subpar standards and a total lack of accountability (come on, they even get the summer off!), and it's our children (as ever) who have suffered.  But NCLB, which allows the federal government to withhold federal education funding from schools unless teachers are "highly qualified" (which we determine by testing, natch) and students have met certain basic criteria (which basically involves being tested every time they leave the lunchroom), has changed all that, because now, if those hippie slacker teacher types don't do their job, BOOM!  Out goes the funding.  See how you like your summers now, bitches.  And it's worked: according to the Department of Education, over forty states have either held the line or improved in all categories (well, all two of them–reading and math–but what else matters, anyway?)  See what happens when you run the race to win?!?  

Except, unfortunately, that when you look at any measure besides the tests themselves–and NCLB has convincingly proven that if you threaten people with dire consequences if they don't pass tests, people will definitely do better on tests–the picture is far less rosy.  First of all, the obsession with testing (and believe me, there are so many of them now that ScanTron can't turn out those bubble sheets for the multiple choice/fill in the blank/true or false exams fast enough) has reached such a fever pitch in the educational world that all things not specifically relating to testing (i.e., all the real education, as I mentioned above) have been unceremoniously shoved to the sidelines, with predictable results. Arts, social studies, and foreign languages have been drastically cut back in many areas of the country; as principal Kathy Deck says, "It hurts me to give up art, but it hurts me even more to have kids who can't read.  I have to decide where I will get the biggest bang for my buck."

That's the spirit!

Even worse, the brass ring chase this has engendered has meant that the thing many teachers are now spending most of their time on is–surprise!–preparation for the test.  And since, as I said above, testing is a waste of time educationally, it means that students are doing really well on the tests they were taught to prepare for and really poorly on the most important thing of all: how to think critically in conditions not possible to recreate in an exam.  What happens when a student confronts a new item entirely outside his/her realm of experience?  Will he/she, having learned how to think and reason, consider alternatives and determine a solution?  Or will he/she, not facing a test question for which he/she has been prepared for months, be entirely clueless?

I guess I'll leave that not-so-rhetorical question for all of you to answer.

And finally, the low performing students, who will ruin everything for the schools if their scores are included with the rest, are kicked out at the earliest possible legal opportunity, while the gifted and talented kids are, as usual, left to fend for themselves.  Special needs and ESL students are, of course, not really important to begin with.  I guess No Average Student is Left Behind, though…or at least not the ones who aren't interested in subjects besides the reading and math on which they're tested.

Fortunately I haven't had to deal with this nonsense on the college level, where we are still given relative autonomy to do our jobs.  But the mania for assessment has permeated higher education, too; we're being asked to create rubrics, assessment sheets, outcome lists, and so on, all precursors of the "show me the numbers!" model which is the NCLB's stock in trade.  Yes, the NCLB is everywhere, and so it's small wonder that it's hard to find a single educator (not administrator–there's often, though not always, a difference) who actually likes the NCLB, and easy to find many who think it to be the worst piece of legislation they've ever seen.  No doubt this is coming from the lazy teachers, who are upset at having their fat cat lifestyles threatened (30-40k a year'll buy some serious bling!), but since they're actually professional educators, while the NCLB visionaries aren't, it does make you wonder a little bit.  Could it be that in our zeal to slap easy labels on complex problems, blame the system on the people working in it, and lean on charts, graphs, and figures for guidance, we've gone way overboard?  Could we actually be doing much more harm than good to the education of our young people?

I don't know.  Will these questions be on the test?