In comments to Friday’s snarky post, I was chided for not engaging with the critique of standardized testing offered by Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss. I had intended to say more about the general topic, as there have been a bunch of much-cited articles in a similar vein crossing my RSS reader recently, but I sprained my ankle playing basketball at lunch, which kind of blew a hole in my afternoon…
Looking at her posts, though, it’s hard to really engage with her critique, because there’s next to nothing there to engage with. In the most recent post, the closest thing to a critique of standardized testing is the repeated assertion that the skills tested on the Florida exams in question are not relevant. Which is great, if proof by repetition works for you, but I disagree with that view. If you enjoy testing yourself against online versions of these things, the Post has made selected math and reading questions available as online quizzes; they’re not substantially harder than the example tests I looked at back in December, and the math skills tested seem pretty useful and relevant to me.
There’s also a link to an older post about Strauss’s bad test experience:
Second grade. Everglades Elementary School in Miami. Mrs. Hirsch, my classroom teacher, passed out the first standardized test I had ever taken. I took the exam and thought I had done well.
In fact, I got every answer wrong.
How does a good student from a highly educated middle-class background do that in second grade?
I was supposed to circle only one answer, as most multiple choice problems require. I picked more than one and then annotated the answers in the margins.
This, to my mind, is not an interesting critique of standardized testing. In fact, it fails on both the adjective and the noun. It’s not useful as a critique because it hangs on an analogy between a badly designed second-grade test, probably circa 1970, and it’s not interesting because this sort of “I was too smart for the test” story is as tediously common as it is annoyingly precious.
I find this really annoying, because it’s not like I’m a hard-core proponent of high-stakes standardized testing. Quite the contrary– I think there are ample reasons to be wary of the whole notion, especially because pinning financial incentives to test scores encourages “teaching to the test” at best, and blatant fraud at worst. As has been demonstrated over and over again.
And yet, this kind of “standardized tests are bad because they fail to capture my essence as a beautiful unique snowflake” crap pushes me to take the pro-test side. Because, really, this is not a significant source of problems. The vast majority of people who fail math tests do so because they can’t do the math, not because the system is stifling their inner genius. There are problems with the idea of high-stakes testing, but this is so far down the list that it’s not even worth discussing.
Sadly, this sort of nonsense is inevitable any time the subject comes up. It’s just another variant of “My kid is a genius but gets bad grades because he’s bored by normal school.” Which is an argument I have very little sympathy for.
I have a similar sort of reaction to the anti-Teach for America article that got a lot of buzz a couple of weeks ago. The author, Andrew Hartman, makes a good case that Teach for America is not the inspirational success story it’s sometimes made out to be, but he ends in a way that puts me off the whole thing, with sneering insinuations that wealthy people are deliberately funding Teach for America as a way of keeping poor people down, and a weird rant against the entire idea of public schooling. Which is delivered with the best of intentions– the implied content of his ideal education is all good stuff– but in a manner that make me want to take the opposite side.
The third much-linked recent piece on education that really bugs me is this post about the irrelevance of high school education:
High school students know that they will almost certainly be using computers in any desirable job that they manage to get after high school. They know that a computer is a requirement for success in today’s higher eduction environments. They know that, in the “real world”, college students don’t write papers in longhand on loose-leaf notebook paper; they know that, in the “real world”, people don’t create business presentations with markers and paste on poster board or tri-fold displays; they know that, “in the real world”, people who engage in any type of research may still occasionally use books, but they conduct the majority of their research using online tools. They know that, “in the real world”, bankers do not keep their accounts in paper ledger books, or do their financial forecasting only with the aid of a calculator. Yet high school students are regularly asked to write in longhand on notebook paper, make presentations using kindergarten tools, research mostly using books, and do their calculations on paper. Why should anyone be surprised that they don’t find their high school experiences “relevant”?
The problem here is that this is presented as mostly a failure of curriculum– particularly a few links down the chain– as if this is being done solely out of hidebound pedagogy. In fact, I suspect that the worst of these irrelevancies are less a matter of program design than resource constraints. If you want every student to do their final report on a computer, you need to provide computer access to every student, and that costs money. Which is in short supply everywhere these days, but particularly in education. Go take a look at the teacher requests at DonorsChoose— some of them are asking for money to buy basic furniture for their classrooms. I’m sure they would be thrilled to have every student typing their papers in the latest version of Word and printing slick posters, but when you’ve got teachers begging for money to buy chairs, poster printers aren’t really on the menu. (To be fair, the original author seems to be aware of this, but doesn’t make it a point of emphasis. By the second- or third-order links, though, it’s being presented as a failure of imagination, with nary a word about economics.)
(There’s also the problem that some of these “irrelevant” items actually serve a pedagogical purpose. We often make students do problems on paper that they could do with a computer because that’s how you learn to understand what the computer is doing. And if you don’t have a solid understanding of how the computer gets the answer, sooner or later you’re going to run into trouble.)
So, anyway, there’s a collection of recent writing about education that has made me grumpy.