Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Testing Instead of Learning

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Of all people, surely math teachers would be most pleased with Texas' "accountability" system. On some campuses with low math scores, it becomes an obsession, with class time doubled and all sorts of activities keeping math on the front burner. Not surprisingly, test scores rise.

So I was surprised to hear from a 30-year veteran high school math teacher who agreed with a column about the overemphasis on standardized testing. He said that in his school district, juniors and seniors who failed exit-level math exams were pulled from other classes to "practice" for this month's Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — TAKS.

"They are to be excused from all work in their classes during this time," he wrote. Now that's an education. Put everything aside for a single academic skill that students might or might not use later in life.

Math? Well, of course these students will need to add, subtract, divide, do percentages. They'll use those skills for life. But the exit-level TAKS involves much more, and that bothers this teacher.

After the basic-skills Texas Assessment of Academic Skills — TAAS — ran its course, lawmakers "raised the bar." But to what end? The teacher was blunt. "The root of the entire fiasco is the notion that all students can take high-level math and science courses.

"Twenty years ago students who could not add or multiply were in basic math classes. Now we find these same students in advanced algebra.

"I often fantasize that I am speaking to the Texas Legislature," he wrote. " 'The Emperor has no clothes on,' I tell them. Let's admit the truth that not all young students have the same capacity to learn difficult subjects. If this were true, this country would have a surplus of brain surgeons and a paucity of burger flippers."

Being realistic doesn't mean forfeiting a child's education, he says. His concerns are really a critique of one-size-fits all education, of standardization. This math teacher's words are an advisory that the whole of education is being lost to "accountability" for some children who really need to be inspired in any way by a broad-based exposure to the world of ideas, concepts, life skills and potential careers, while learning reading and math.

On that note: If anyone should benefit from Texas-style "accountability," it is children who lack basic skills. Right? Isn't handling it any other way "the soft bigotry of low expectations," as President Bush says? Not necessarily, says University of Texas associate professor Angela Valenzuela, author of "Leaving Children Behind."

"The problem here is that the testing system doubles as both an assessment and monitoring system — monitoring the behavior of the adults.

"Particularly in poor and minority schools that are subject to the 'gaze' of central office, numbers-based accountability manages the behavior of the adults in the system by pressuring them to perform. The rhetoric gives the impression that all children are finally being taught. The reality is that this often translates into dumbed-down, routinized, test-driven, ratings-focused pedagogy."

This doesn't factor in the time spent on testing and practice tests.

State Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, has authored a bill to launch an interim committee to examine the usefulness and impact of all of this. Do these tests really predict success in later grades or college? How much instructional time is being lost? What is the impact of the extra paper work on our teachers?

Is this truly the best education we can provide our students? "Not" I thought recently when a another school day was lost for a state-required "field test" of TAKS. It had no bearing on students' grades. Yes, education stopped dead, not to educate our children but so our the accountability machine could recalibrate itself.

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1 comment:

  1. The math teacher quoted in this article echoes the same cry heard from most highly talented teachers. "The whole of education is being lost to "accountability" for some children who really need to be inspired in any way by a broad-based exposure to the world of ideas, concepts, life skills and potential careers, while learning reading and math." What is really disgusting about the testing push is that the complaints heard from todays caring teachers are not new!! Highly trained educators commented on what uniformity and standardization do to students at the turn of the twentieth century!

    Back in 1911, in the preface to his book, The Teaching of Primary Arithmetic, Henry Suzzallo (an educator with a BA from Stanford and a PH, D from Colombia, who went on to serve as president for The University of Washington) wrote, “The result of imposed uniformity is a reduction of spontaneity in teaching. The process of instruction proceeds in a more or less mechanical fashion, the teacher working for bulk results by a persistent and general application of methods laid down. That teaching which at every moment tends to adjust itself skillfully to the changes of human doubt and interest, difficulty and success, discouragement and insight, now taking care of a whole group at once, now aiding an individual straggler, now resolutely following a prescribed lead, now pursuing a line of last resistance previously unsuspected, cannot thrive under such conditions. The demand for excessive uniformity stifles teaching as a fine art, and makes of it a mechanical business; only those activities that fit the machine can go on. Thus it happens that we memorize, cram, drill, and review; and soon the subtler processes of thinking and evaluating, which are the best fruit of education, cease to exist.” (Suzzallo, p29)

    But lets not trust what teachers have to say about testing, lets listen to the students: In another article, further down in the Blog, Texas Lagging on College Goals, Chicchil, a college student at UT San Antonio is quoted as saying,"One girl was saying how in high school she didn't learn anything except how to take a test."