Tuesday, March 20, 2007

the March madness of standardized tests

Blogging neighbor Mark Olson takes on standardized tests, raising some interesting points.

First, Olson argues against "curricular dogma," noting that schools test to a limited knowledge set, when instead they should test whether students can memorize, persevere, reason, and be diligent--in other words, be "studious." Now, I'm not completely sold on the "critical thinking" line that students can largely do without a common curriculum--I'm reading Hirsch's The Knowledge Deficit, and finding it convincing in parts--but I would agree that the skills a standardized test measures are narrow indeed, and, even worse, leading districts to adopt corporate-driven national curriculum, a prelude to what I've called the Frenchification of education.

Second, Olson explains why his proposal won't get too far in the present climate: he blames unions and bureaucrats for perpetuating into the status quo.

I'm not so certain that teachers' unions would be opposed to smarter tests that measured real learning, though. Most of the criticism coming out of the NEA is that the current standardized tests miss out on real merit, take ungodly amounts of time and money, encourage data fudging if not outright cheating, cheapen local control of curriculum, and place unfair burdens on teachers who teach in troubled schools.

Perseverance: our students just survived five sessions of the WASL, and have four more before they can prove their graduation-worthiness. When it comes to standardized tests, bureaucrats and testmakers have the perseverance of Sisyphus.

Sidebar: for a different teacher's take, go here.


Mark said...

one minor quibble, it's reason and diligence, not reason and reason. ;)

I did admit to a common testing body, but that I think standards for that don't need to be as high as we suppose (I used the term subsistence). I also didn't explicitly state, the point that if you try to teach those skills well, I'd think that you can't do it without learning a lot about many things along the way. It's just there is no reason for those "things" taught to be uniform over all schools and students. In fact the opposite is true. Are we not told these days that in diversity lies strength?

Back when I wrote about education a long long time ago, and proposed this line of education I was also wondering about another notion, which is basically independent. The Greek civilization was very fractious and diverse. What unified them was a text (two?) ... that is Homer's poems. If might be an interesting notion to find a pair or mayhap four or five texts which our country might identify as books which would be good if we each read to give us a common fabric for our social discourse. I've not figured out what might serve an analogous purpose for us as Homer served the Greeks.

Jim Anderson said...

Fixed that typo. Thanks.

Let's see... four or five common texts for the United States (or, in other words, bite-sized Hirsch).

How about...

1. The Constitution and Declaration
2. Huck Finn (the first truly great American novel)
3. Invisible Man (the second)
4. Leaves of Grass

Everything you need to know about America, right there. How's that for dogmatic?

Mark said...

I'd add the Federalist papers to the first if you want those two, as commentary. But I'm hoping for fiction, more to fire the imaginations and provide context and common language.

I don't know about #4, I've not read it. I thought it was commentary on race in America, which seems kinda narrow in scope compared to the more universal topics Homer tackles.

I've seen parts of #5 but haven't read much in the way of (or any actually) modern poetry.

These are the tests on which you'd build a nation/civilization? Or you trying to prick my sensibilities. :)

Jim Anderson said...

A little o' both, actually. Saying that Invisible Man is just a "commentary on race in America" is like saying The Odyssey is a travelogue.