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'Teach to the Test'? What Test?

Susan Notes: Now here is good homework.


By Colman McCarthy

From the academic sidelines, where calls to Leave No Child Untested are routinely sounded by quick-fix school reformers, Jay Mathews joins in with his Feb. 20 op-ed column, "Let's Teach to the Test." In well-crafted prose, he reports that "in 23 years of visiting classrooms I have yet to see any teacher preparing kids for exams in ways that were not careful, sensible and likely to produce more learning."

On Mathews's visit to my classroom four years ago -- at School Without Walls, where I have been volunteering since 1982 -- he must not have noticed that not only was I not preparing my 28 students for tests but that I regard tests as educational insults. At School Without Walls and two other high schools where I am a guest teacher -- Wilson High School in the District and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in lower Montgomery County -- I have never given a test. I respect my students too much to demean them with exercises in fake knowledge.

Tests represent fear-based learning, the opposite of learning based on desire. Frightened and fretting with pre-test jitters, students stuff their minds with information they disgorge on exam sheets and sweat out the results. I know of no meaningful evidence that acing tests has anything to do with students' character development or whether their natural instincts for idealism or altruism are nurtured.

I have large amounts of evidence that tests promote the opposite: character defects. After having two of my high school classes read Mathews's column, I asked the students: If during a test the opportunity came to cheat, with no fear of being caught, would you? A majority of hands went up. A few students dismissed the question as naive. Not cheat if you could get away with it? Get real. When speaking at high school assemblies, I ask students how many can raise their hands and say with total honesty that they never cheated in school. Few hands go up. If some brave souls do confess to honesty, they are greeted with jeers or calls of "yeah, right."

Standardized tests measure braininess and memory skills. American society has plenty of people who were academic whizzes in high school but were so driven by the lure of a high grade-point average that their spiritual lives remained stunted. I worry about students who make too many A's. What parts of their inner lives are they sacrificing to conform to someone else's notion that doing well in tests means doing well in life? Is any time left over from mastering theoretical knowledge for gaining the kind of experiential knowledge found in community service or volunteering in programs such as Special Olympics or DC Reads?

Desire-based learning happens when teachers deal in combustibles, when fires are lit and students burn to explore ideas that have nothing to do with what testocrats require. Quality teachers who are fire-lighters often find themselves trapped in schools that have been seduced by the Advanced Placement fad. Teachers whose students can't hack the AP final are regarded as failures.

School principals get hammerlocked also. They watch teachers' performance the way teachers watch students' performance. A hierarchy results. Most everyone is fearful of someone in power right above. Students worry about teachers, teachers worry about principals, principals worry about school boards, school boards worry about politicians and politicians worry about the voters.

Before riskily breaking ranks with an innovation or two that might actually eliminate fear in the classroom, a deviator must ask: Will I be whacked by that power-wielder just above me? Caution reigns.

To compensate for my no-testing policy, I assign tons of homework. The assignments? Tell someone you love him or her. Do a favor for someone who won't know you did it. Say a kind word to the workers at the school: the people who clean the toilets, cook the food, drive the buses and heat the buildings. And a warning: If you don't do the homework, you'll fail. You'll fail your better self, you'll fail to make the world better, you'll fail at being a peacemaker.

For 25 years of testing the waters by not testing, I've been telling my students not to worry about answering questions. Be braver and bolder: Question the answers. Which answers? To start, the ones from anyone who champions classroom get-aheadism based on test scores. Throw off your chains, students. You have nothing to lose but your backpacks.

The writer, a former Post columnist (1969 to 1997), directs the Center for Teaching Peace and teaches nonviolence at three high schools and four universities.

— Colman McCarthy
Washington Post
2006-03-18


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