11 October 2010

Everyone gets a ribbon, or at least a test......

Welcome to the first of 12 (yes, the same number as the number of donuts I had for breakfast) entries on specific problems in American education.

I could try to be especially funny with these, but the material doesn't lend itself to comedy, so I'll try to end with a marginally humorous story which is tangentially related to the rant at hand.

Today, we begin with the problem of comparing ourselves to others using standardized testing. Many people wring their hands every 3 or so years, when international tests show that American students rank somewhere below, in 2006, Iceland. We, rightfully so, believe that we should be creating smarter students than Iceland. Perhaps, one thinks, there is more to this story.

I think that tests like the PISA, which is what we use to compare nations against each other, is nice for comparing how well we know math or science or reading. Is there cause for some concern that our students are slightly less educated in algebra than Slovakians? Probably. Is there need for wholesale change and education reform? I don't think so.

To understand why I think that we're ok, we need a small history lesson, so bear with me. American education was created (as we know it) in the early days of the Republic, in fact, it predates the Constitution. The founders understood that in order to have a functioning representative democracy, you needed, at the minimum, a functionally educated citizenry. So, in the Northwest Ordinance of 1785, they provided for free, public education, supported by 1 plot in each township in the Northwest Territory.

As time passed, schools became more than places for education, but became tools of socialization. For a nation of immigrants, from diverse backgrounds, religions, and languages, American schools do something that very few other industrialized nations do, they provide a common history and background, instilling "American" values in all students (or as many as we can).

Also, due to the fact that Americans value the opportunity to succeed for everybody (every kindergartner is told that they could one day be President), American students are rarely separated prior to the conclusion of secondary school. So when a school tests it's kids here, it tests all of them. I can only speak for the three schools I've worked at, but they haven't offered a lower math until the 11th/12th grade level. So.....

The PISA is designed to test 15 and 16 year olds, since that is the end of compulsory education in most developed nations. While that is practically true, the vast majority of American students continue their studies through their 18th year. So, since we don't offer lower math, students "stuck" in math that has no practical application to their life, and therefore, they take the PISA, and our scores go down. (For what it's worth, we scored within 60 points of the top in 2003 math, about 15% off of the top nation, Finland). So our sophomores, world-wide, earned a B. Now, I'm not thrilled with a B, but considering all of the other things we did with those sophomores, I'll take it. Perhaps we shouldn't be wringing our hands over how sophomores do on a standardized test. Because we know that sophomores are dumb. Ask someone who has children who are sophomores. They'll admit it.

So, perhaps we shouldn't freak out. Perhaps we should look at high school graduates, ask if they can be productive members of society or not, and if the answer is yes, then we should be pleased. I understand that as a practical matter, schools need some fixing, but I'm not always convinced that the situation is as dire as the media often makes it out to be.

But that's just me.

Tomorrow, I'll rant about how tests are actually making American students dumber and more useless to society.

And now, the tangential story I promised

In the state where I teach, children have to take a standardized test, but the results don't bar them from graduation, so in reality our "high-stakes" test, is only high-stakes for teachers, and kids don't give a flying rat's ass about it.

But teachers do, and schools do, so to maximize the potential for good scores, teachers get together and "clean" test books (i.e. we erase stray marks, make sure that the names are correct, so on and so on). While you're doing this, you get to scan over the student responses.

I'll never forget my favorite student response in an essay booklet. Here it is, in it's entirety:

"I like green. I like bears. It would be awesome if there were a green bear"

Tomorrow: Why we take these damn tests, anyway.


  1. and I've always wondered how the green bear kid scored for that "paragraph"

  2. Yes yes, the "Green Bear". I remeber it well. I proctered that test. It hurt me inside that I was not allowed to make the student write more. It hurt me inside that when I accidently glanced at their answer I remembered I was not allowed to look. It hurt me inside that the student thinks a response of that nature is acceptable. Finally, it hurts the school because the student transfered before the school year was even out. The bad essay made the school average worse, and the student wasn't around for us to teach them.