Standardized test doesn’t measure true intellect

Maybe it’s the millennium, but this column may seem different.

Why? Well, for once, this column will quote a conservative governor (but not the beloved presidential candidate W.) and not only quote the governor, but also actually agree with him.

Don’t worry; there have been no head traumas, no concussions and no ridiculous amounts of mind-altering drugs to cause this change. In fact, the governor’s words will be twisted to the point that he would be shocked if he heard them. And so, without further ado:

As quoted by The New York Times, Governor George Pataki of New York eloquently spoke these words during his state of the state speech: “Too many of our children are victims of the most insidious enemy of excellence: low expectations.”

Amen, brother! High standards are the way to go. Self-fulfilling prophecies of low performance are a sad and common effect in education today.

However, the most popular method of raising such standards is a misguided and mistaken effort to fix education that will fail in saving American education, if not critically damage it.

Recently, we have been barraged with some disheartening statistics about our next generation. It is sad that our teenagers do not know common facts such as what the Holocaust or when was the Civil War. It is a shame that US students ranked at the bottom in science tests compared to other industrialized countries. However, these problems are not solved through the rote learning and memorization needed for national or state tests.

The first problem with these high standard tests is their general inability to fully address every subject a child has learned. No standardized test (or tests) can reasonably address all the learning accumulated up to 11th grade. Multiple-choice questions and short, timed essays are inadequate options for a child to show his/her knowledge and thought process.

In fact, the “essays” are read for a short period of time by the grader (for AP tests, it averages roughly 90 seconds; can anyone reasonably expect more time for an even more ubiquitous test?) and the reader focuses not only on the thought process of the child, but also minor spelling and grammatical errors. How will a child feel about education if eleven years of blood, sweat and tears are reduced to one week of standardized testing?

Second, these tests stifle the individualistic and creative styles of teaching that reach out to the students who most need help. If there is a “high standards” test before graduating high school then many (if not most) students will see passing the test as the ultimate goal of their education. Therefore, many will stop learning once they feel they can pass the test, while those who test poorly will incorrectly feel both stupid and inadequate.

On the other side of the classroom, teachers will come under pressure to focus their classes more on teaching the test’s curriculum. Innovation and experimentation will be lost to the new “accountability” of both school and student – an accountability based on simple facts, not a true education.

The best education comes not when a child is learning how to use a comma or the Pythagorean Theorem, but when a child is challenged in an elective class to philosophize and moralize about the great problems of our time. A child feels most involved in learning not in a required, uninspired art class, but when the teacher is vibrant, interested and challenging the students to think beyond one art piece or one musical number and into the meaning and symbolism behind it. Learning the facts of American government is important, but learning to debate about current issues and the legacies of different presidents is even more impressive. All of these may soon be (and sadly, in some districts, already are) lost to the deafening roar of the impending required graduation tests.

However, society does have a right to know whether or not its educational system is working. Even though testing is a poor means to that end, it does have the appearance of an objective analysis of how well our educational system is working for specific children. Fortunately, there is an option that combines both the need for accountability and the need for a deeper knowledge than a test can show. This option is portfolio grading.

Over a child’s high school career, he/she should be expected to create a portfolio of meaningful work such as a research paper, an independent experiment, a creative piece of fiction or music, and a political position paper and some others. Then, in order to graduate, the student should have to orally defend his/her positions to other students and faculty members. It’s a lot more work for everyone in the system than a test is, but it is also a lot more rewarding. It allows the student to feel truly involved in his/her education as well as prepare a student much more effectively for later life than any test can ever dream.

Education is moving from a journey from naïve child to less naïve adult who appreciates knowledge and the process of learning, to a journey through the morass of Scantron sheets and #2 pencils. Hopefully, the trend will reverse itself.

Actually, it was not very different, was it? Phew.