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National Educational Assessment Rubbish

Publication Date: 2007-09-30

The U.S. Department of Education is all aglow because 4th and 8th grade Math scores are two points higher than they were two years ago. They don't even want to consider the idea that intensive testing only proves that kids are learning to study for the tests, at the expense of their real educations.

This is from Nolan Chart, Sept. 26, 2007.

Well, whup-de-doo. 4th and 8th grade math scores are up two points, according to the National Assessment on Educational Progress, a venture of the U.S. Department of Education's "No Child Left Behind" program. Nevermind that they're still scoring well below 300 on a test scale that goes to 500. I wonder if the Education folks can do the math? A national score of 240 out of 500 means that even with the increase kids are getting 52% of the answers wrong. I believe that under traditional scoring that score counts as an F.

But that's only a small piece of the picture. There's actually a bigger question here: What does testing actually tell us? And whose needs are being met by testing: the educators' needs, the politicians' needs, the parents' needs.... or the students' needs? Most people assume that all those needs are synonymous, but they're not.

Mandatory Testing Is A Waste Of Time

It's considered a given by educators that testing is important (after all they're just trying to protect their jobs), but where's the documentation to back up that assumption? Don't look too hard trying to find it; you might strain yourself trying to find something that's not there. School testing's so-called "importance" is one of those assumptions that never gets questioned, so you aren't going to find any studies to see if testing is really necessary or what testing really proves. In fact, I defy any educator to formulate such a study in a way that actually makes sense. I mean, how do you actually prove what testing really shows us beyond the ability to study for the test? And if you can't prove what testing really shows us, how can you say that testing proves anything?

I was an A and B student in school, yet I can state categorically that those marks said nothing about what I actually knew. They simply showed that I was good at taking tests. Any former A or B student can tell you the same thing if they're honest enough with themselves. Teachers today are being required to drill their students in preparation for standardized tests far more than in the past. What's significant isn't that the scores are up. It's far more significant how small the increases are. Again, all they're proving is that anyone can learn to take a test a little more effectively. They are not proving that kids today know more than their predecessors did five years ago.

What happens to knowledge and comprehension on a subject 10 years after the person studied for the test? Could most American adults even pass a standardized school test that they haven't studied for recently? It's doubtful. Ask any banker: many, many people have trouble doing such simple things as balancing their checking accounts. Yet, these same adults are productive citizens leading normal lives. So why then do public schools insist on taking credit for what such adults achieve in their lives? And how do public school advocates defend the notion that most of these same adults who can't balance their checkbooks learned math the public school way?

Most of what public schools (and most private schools) require is rubbish. A "well-rounded" education supposedly includes English, math, science, history, and literature, among other things. Yet, no one seems concerned about how well-rounded the adults are after they get out of school. The concern ends after graduation day.

How would you do if you had to take a standardized test today (without brushing up first)? Consider the following topical questions:

* When was the last time you read a classic novel?

* Can you solve a quadratic equation?

* What year was the U.S. Constitution ratified?

* What is the chemical symbol for silver?

* What is a past participle?

* Are you any less of a productive, intelligent adult if you can't answer half of these questions without "cheating" by going somewhere to look up the answers?

* If you are among the few who can successfully answer the above questions, what does that really say about your knowledge and your ability to think for yourself, if anything?

You might do well on Jeopardy, but if you're not a chemist, do you really need to know that the chemical symbol for silver is Ag? If you're not a professional mathematician, do you really need to know how to solve a quadratic equation? Is there really a gap in your life if you haven't read A Tale of Two Cities or if you can't answer that the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788?

The Harm In Mandatory Testing

Clearly, you are a productive adult human being. Does your current inability to answer enough of the above questions to "pass" suggest otherwise? Of course not. But the insanity doesn't stop there. I suggest that there's another reason why mandatory testing is a waste of time. It's actually harmful. Yes, that's right, I said that mandatory testing is harmful. How could I possibly make that argument?

It's easy, actually. Mandatory testing is a significant portion of a much larger problem. The question isn't, "Why can't Johnny read?" as much as, "Why can't Johnny think for himself?" Americans are becoming worse and worse at thinking for themselves. Ask an American what food he likes or what movie he likes, and you'll be more likely to get an original answer than if you ask that same American to analyze how we got into our current foreign policy mess in Iraq. For the latter, you'll likely get little more than parroted answers they picked up off the TV (if you get a coherent answer at all). Our reliance on testing falsely leads us to believe that people can think better than they actually can, while it simultaneously reinforces a system (coercive education) that actually undermines the development of personal motivation and passions for learning.

Coercive education combined with mandatory testing teaches us to be parrots. It "dumbs us down." We parroted whatever the teacher wanted us to parrot in search of that elusive reward known as "good marks." Think back to your own school days. Remember how frustrating tests were because they seemed to be little more than memorization exercises? Well guess what...that's what they were! And they still are today. They are attempts to find out how much you've memorized recently. That's what they've always been.

Mandatory testing is also highly stressful. Ask any modern parent...the amount of pressure that is placed on kids these days to score well is spilling over into the homes. Ask any doctor, and they'll tell you that stress is bad for you. Elementary school kids are now given homework to do at home each night. When I was growing up, homework in grades 1-6 was unheard of. Have I suffered for the lack of it? Hardly. And if you're honest with yourself, you haven't either.

Mandatory testing undermines self-esteem. It makes kids feel bad if they don't score as well as they were expected to score, as if that's what's important in life.

Weight gain among kids is constantly in the news. Obesity among kids is at record levels. Weight gain is tied by many psychotherapists to unresolved emotional issues. Could our schools be contributing to those emotional issues? Most people have never thought about this possibility, but we should give it serious consideration.

Mandatory testing also discourages exercise. So far, educators don't seem to have made the connection between mandatory testing and weight gain, but how can we reasonably expect overweight kids to burn off calories if they're forced to be indoors studying for some test rather than permitted to be outside playing? Where's the value in that?

The Value Of Play

Most people (especially educators) give little credence to the idea that play is important to education. How foolish their notion of "importance" really is! Play is essential, much more necessary than studying the history of the American Civil War. Play is how we try things out, how we experiment. It's how we learn to work with each other, to get along with each other. It's how we learn how things work. Play is how we learn best.

Any adult faced for the first time with learning how to use a computer long after they left school had to play with that computer for a bit in order to get the hang of it. All the instruction in the world can't replace playing with something in order to really learn it. It's even worse that some adults don't feel like they can learn to use a computer without taking a class. Their lack of self-reliance and self-confidence is evidence of their dependence on being motivated by someone else and by parroting what they're told. The coercive education they received trained them to be dependent on others whenever they need to learn something new. It taught them to distrust their own impulses and motivations.

Childhood games are often seen as "foolish" and "childish," but it's actually the evaluators who make that claim who are the childish fools.

Motivation and Passion

Here's also another reason why most of us are little more than "parrots." Coercive education assumes that teachers must motivate students. Most people today would consider this a given, but it's not. In fact, no one can really motivate you except you. If you really want to learn something, no one should stop you (although it's amazing how often people do try to stop others from learning things, particularly if they are things that the other person doesn't value). If you really don't want to learn something, all the external motivation in the world isn't going to improve the situation significantly.

"That's rubbish," I can hear some people say already. "Teachers regularly and successfully motivate kids to study stuff they wouldn't otherwise want to study, and they're better off for it."

But how do you know that they're better off? And worse, how do you know that they really learned it? After all, tests only tell us what the student recently memorized. You (and everybody else) assume that it's true that the student learned it, but how do you know it's really true? Where's your factual, objective evidence that it's true? And what happens to the motivation after this false form of "learning" has been completed? In reality, internally motivated learning never ends, but externally motivated learning ends when the "lesson" ends.

"It's obvious," is the common retort. "It's common sense. If you've been turned on to a subject that you didn't like before, you're better off. Everyone knows that."

People who say things like that have forgotten what passion, what motivation really is, assuming they ever really knew in the first place. Expressing somewhat greater interest in a subject you didn't care as much about before isn't passion. It isn't real motivation. It's more like polite acknowledgement.

To be truly motivated isn't to just read about something and say, "Isn't that interesting!" then go back to what you were doing before. It's not accurate to say someone's motivated if he doesn't actually do something about it too because he wants to do it.

Sudbury Valley School -- Real Motivation, Real Passion

Ever wonder what kids would be doing if they weren't strapped to their school chairs being "motivated" to do what the teachers wanted them to do? Believe it or not, there's actually a model of schooling that allows students to do what they want to do every minute of every day, and the results outperform traditional schooling. It's called the Sudbury model of education, and it arose during the 1960's when all kinds of experimentation was taking place in Education.

The first Sudbury school was founded (and is highly successful today) in Framingham, Massachusetts (which is in the Sudbury Valley, hence the name). Sudbury Valley School's students truly develop passions in their lives. Their motivations are real, because the motivations are internally developed rather than externally required.

Traditional educators are often shocked to learn that Sudbury students all learn to read very well by the time they leave school, but none are ever required to learn to read. Some take as long as age 11 or 12 before they even start to read. Yet, by the time they leave the school, you can't tell apart the early readers from the late readers. This means that most Sudbury students don't hate to read! Their public school counterparts can't often make that claim. How different our world would be if coercive education didn't drive things like love of reading from students by forcing them to do it when they're not developmentally ready to do it.

There is no testing. There are no required classes. You don't even have to go to class if you don't want to. Classes only happen when kids want them and ask for them.

You also won't find educational disabilities such as dyslexia in Sudbury schools because such disabilities are nearly always caused by coercive education. Sudbury doesn't consider any one method of learning to read to be the "correct" method.

Sudbury kids, by the way, when they're ready to learn math (by their own decision, timetable, and motivations) usually learn the first six years of public school math in about 20 weeks.

This flies in the face of everything that traditional educators hold near and dear. In fact, many educators when presented with the evidence of Sudbury will dismiss it, claiming that those kids are being harmed because they're NOT required to learn things! This is evidence of the peculiar arrogance that the most vehement defenders of coercive education and mandatory testing have. These same educators never feel compelled to prove their claim, to substantiate it with evidence. They provide no evidence. They simply make the claim and expect us to believe their claim because they are the authorities on education! They are the experts, and we mere mortals shouldn't presume to question their knowledge, their judgment, their experience, and their expertise. They feel they shouldn't have to prove what they advocate!

By the way, some of you may be wondering how Sudbury kids do when it comes to getting into college or progressing into a career. Here's the surprising answer. Every Sudbury school student who wants to go to college does so successfully. No exceptions. Those who don't want to go to college are 3-5 times more likely to be entrepreneurial than their public school counterparts.

A Different Way To Get Into College

But how do Sudbury school kids get into those colleges in the first place if they don't have grades, transcripts, etc.? Again, the answer will surprise you. Sudbury kids are far more motivated than public school kids. They have learned to trust their own motivations and how to follow through on them, unlike public school inmates. They have a level of confidence that most public school kids can't match, and it all comes from being in charge of their own educations.
Perhaps an anecdote will help make this clear. Since Sudbury Valley is so different from traditional education, they've had to produce their own literature for prospective parents to learn more about their model. Here's the Foreword from Free At Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg:

There were no appointments available.

By December, everyone who hoped to attend Wesleyan University of Middletown, Connecticut, had long since submitted their applications and made arrangements for an admissions interview. December was late to apply, almost certainly too late to see anyone.

That didn't stop Lisa. Every morning, shortly after 9:00, she got on the phone and dialed Wesleyan admissions. Every morning, a secretary took her call and said, "No openings." Soon her voice and her persistence were known to all the admissions people. She chatted with them, cajoled them, implored them. Week after week.

Why hadn't she applied on time, they would ask. She had, was her reply -- but not to Wesleyan. Her other applications were long since completed. But only just now had she been told by a friend and teacher that she must look into Wesleyan, the perfect school for her. She had visited the campus, talked to people there, and realized her friend was right. Wesleyan was for her. She knew it, and no matter how late her application, she was determined to have Wesleyan know it too.

An interview was essential. To get in, they had to evaluate her directly, look her in the eye, see what and who she really is. Of course, she had written the usual essays and answers on the printed form. But in one way her application was frighteningly different

It had no grades, no transcripts, no written evaluations. None, not one, from all her years at school.

Lisa had gone to Sudbury Valley School. She had learned many things, but most of all she had learned that she had to make it on her own.

January 8th. "We have a cancellation. Can you come next Tuesday at 9:00 AM? The Dean of Admissions himself will see you." Ecstasy. Of course, she can come next Tuesday, any day, any time.

She arrives at the Wesleyan office. Everyone turns to look at her. So this is the girl who never stopped calling, never gave up. They smile at her, welcome her warmly. The Dean knows.

She disappears into the Dean's office for her fifteen minute audience. The other applicants are waiting their turns and their appointed times. A quarter of an hour passes. No Lisa. Half an hour. Three-quarters of an hour. What is going on in there? Finally, after an hour, the Dean emerges with her, both laughing. They go over to her waiting mother, where the Dean says only, "I hope Lisa decides to come. I think this is the right place for her."

The application, the interview, have worked. Twelve years of schooling, distilled into a powerful essence, have achieved what they set out to do. She has been invited to attend. She accepts.

Every graduate of Sudbury Valley who wanted to attend college has a similar story to tell. All were accepted, most to the college of their first choice. Many were invited. None had transcripts or any of the standard evaluations or recommendation forms.

They had more. They had their inner strength, their self-knowledge, their determination. And each time, in every college admissions office where they had applied, people wondered, "What kind of school is this that turns out such people? What is Sudbury Valley?"

Getting Back To Testing

The ultimate problem where mandatory testing is concerned, of course, is that testing can't prove that you can think. The most that it can hope to prove is that you can express what you can think. But if you can't express well what you think, does that mean you can't think? Many educators answer this question with a resounding YES, but how do they really know? If they're really honest with themselves, they have to admit that there's no way to prove it. It's just one of those false assumptions that can't be proven.

I'm not saying that learning to express yourself doesn't help you learn to think better. It does. But it doesn't (and can't) prove that you can't think at all, or that if you express yourself well that you can think well. Such an evaluation requires a highly subjective approach, because the main variable is going to be personal, human values, not quantities of things. Values of this kind can't be measured objectively and quantifiably while still retaining their meaning. Thus, when I say that Johnny can't think, I'm uttering a subjective judgment. The difference between me and most educators is that I'm willing to admit that the judgment is subjective. They want us to believe that their judgment, as represented in testing, is objective, but they don't want to have to prove that key point.

So I hope they'll forgive me if I don't get all excited about an increase in national school test scores. Frankly, it doesn't really matter what the test scores say, because they don't measure anything meaningful. Instead, they are a symptom, an example of the overwhelming effort of educators who defend the No Child Left Behind act who want us to avoid thinking about the implications of that Act and the detrimental effects it is having today, detrimental effects that will be felt by today's students long after they leave school and wonder why they, too, have so much trouble balancing their checkbooks.

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