Saturday, April 9, 2011

Godzilla Makes Frankenstein

Testing in schools has become like the weather—everyone complains, but no one does anything about it. Really, I have not met one single teacher who looks me in the eye and says, “I think the testing that we’re doing at schools is just the right thing to do. The kids love it, it makes me a better teacher and the results are clear—our kids are smarter, more accomplished, more knowledgable and happier.” And yet, we continue to do it. Why?

Vacationing in Florida, my 15-year old niece was on the beach and pulled out a book. There are few things more pleasurable than lying on a beach towel serenaded by the gentle lull of the waves and immersed in a book. I hoped to see “Catcher in the Rye” or “Catch 22” or “A Tale of Two Cities” or some such great read. Instead it’s a big fat book titled: “ACT: Strategies, Practice and Review Kaplan 2011” In Wisconsin where she lives, the ACT is the equivalent of the SAT and so at 15, with college already on her mind, she’s getting herself ready. I asked her to give me a question or two, thinking it might be fun as a kind of quiz show game. Once I started hearing the kinds of things they were asking, it struck me like a two-by-four on the head how utterly insane this testing atmosphere is, a mutant gene gone rampant, some educational Godzilla stomping through the schools and wreaking havoc. Rather than get upset in a general way about the philosophical faux-pas of mistaking testing for understanding or knowledge, I decided to meet the beast head-on and find out precisely what it’s thinking. And so I read this introduction:

"The ACT is an opportunity, not a barrier. In fact, you should be grateful that you have to take it. Really. Because a strong ACT score is one credential that doesn’t depend on things you can’t control. It doesn’t depend on how good or bad your high school is. It doesn’t depend on how many academic luminaries you know, or how rich and famous your family is, or whether any of your teachers are gullible enough to swear in a letter of recommendation that you’re the greatest scientific mind since Isaac Newton. No, your ACT score depends on only you. ."

Hmm. They have a point there. Indeed, one of the positive aspects of the SAT’s was that they were intended to help level the playing field, give any smart kid a leg up regardless of family background, schools attended, etc. It’s the old American bootstrap story—rags to riches, underprivileged kid makes good. And there are indeed people who have lived that story from all walks of life.

But one problem with the story is the illusion of the equal playing field, the kid who’s born on third base and thinks he hit a triple next to the kid who can’t afford a bat. Thousands (millions?) of affluent families are spending money for SAT tutorial-training so their kid can learn how to take the test and thus, beat out their neighbor. The Kaplan book only costs $20, but if you’re in a poor neighborhood with a school that was punished for its test scores and had even more money taken away from its meager resources, are you prepared to read the Kaplan book? Does the ACT score really “depend on only you?” Might a bad high school actually be a factor? Just wondering.

But as a teacher, I have even more objections. Take this next section, quoted verbatim:

  1. Learn the test. You’ll learn how to get extra points by guessing.
I get how that game works. Even a game show penalizes you for guessing wrong (think Jeopardy), but here it is entirely possible that the stars lined up and your radar was high that day and you guessed your way to a high score. Well, good for you! But bad for education. It means that such tests are miserable indicators of understanding. And it gets worse.

2.  You’ll learn “unofficial” ways of getting right answers fast. On the ACT, nobody cares how you decide which choice to select. The only thing that matters is picking the right answer.

Can I highlight certain things here?

“Right answers fast…”
“ Nobody cares how you decide which choice…”
“ The only thing that matters is picking the right answer.”
“The ONLY thing that matters.
“RIGHT answer.

Do you get the picture? While teachers are trying to teach students time-honored values of slow, methodical work with time for in-depth reflection, speed is the essential skill in the testing game. While a good teacher is working to get students to generate their own questions and consider multiple answers, look at all the shades of grey, the test game is all about black and white, only wants “the right answer”—whatever that is. Indeed, as a student, I did okay on such tests, but often could see other “right answers” and with a chance for conversation, could have defended my choices. But “nobody cared” to have the conversation with me, because the “only thing that mattered is picking the right answer.” That’s a fun game for TV game shows, but has absolutely nothing to do with the enterprise of education.

And finally, “nobody cares how you decide.” But isn’t that meta-cognition the most interesting thing about education? If we are serious about developing thinking human beings, we better be interested in their thought processes. As any half-way awake teacher knows, asking a child how they figured something out, composed a piece, wrote a poem, drew a picture, is just about the most fascinating part of our job.  I have a thirty-minute recorded interview with 5-year old Sam describing IN-DEPTH every step of arriving at his remarkable song “I’m a Little Cracker.” There is more intelligence in any ten sentences of his explanation than the entire history of SAT tests. But apparently nobody cares to know what Sam is thinking and they certainly are not impressed by a song about a cracker—they just want him to get the right answer fast and be done with it.

I’m all for playing games and love Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuits, but when the stakes are the future of our children, the culture and perhaps the species, we better change the rules. Learning the SAT/ACT game will do nothing to prepare kids for work in corporations selling products that don’t yet exist, tell them absolutely nothing about how to resolve territorial squabbles without unleashing nuclear arsenals and certainly prepare them for zero intelligence in dealing with climate change. In this time of rapid change and cataclysmic consequences if we fail to meet the challenges set before us, we need more than ever before intelligence, imagination, caring, compassion, creativity, group work and deep understanding. Yet never have we done so little to prepare children for the kind of thinking and feeling the future demands—except for those few inspired schools struggling to stay alive and those inspired teachers trying to duck under that Godzilla swings of testing and keep their job—and their passion—alive.

In the ultimate horror movie—Godzilla Makes Frankenstein—we are creating a generation of test-taking zombies who will grow up to be the kind of narrow thinkers that have made my life so miserable in Immigration Departments, Government Agencies and other horrors of bureaucracies, whose robotic workers are taught not to care and can see nothing beyond the right answer on the test—fast. Not to blame the children here—and kudos to those who resist and survive, though often at great cost. It is we, the adults, who are supposed to be in charge and every day that goes by with passive acceptance of it all is a strike against the future.

It’s time to bring Godzilla down. 

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