Saturday, November 01, 2014

Ditch the testing mania if we really want students to learn

It is time for midterms.

No, not that one in which the two parties will once again come together in order to choke the lives out of us regular people.

I am referring to midterm exams in the academic quarter system in which I work.  The students in my classes know all too well that I hate "tests."  Instead, what I provide them are structured opportunities for them to demonstrate their understanding of the materials.  This is no semantics here.  After all, the whole point of education is for students to learn and show us how much and how well they have learnt?

But, we focus on testing.  And that too via standardized tests.  Why?  Because that is easy.  Way easier than to systematically find out what every individual student has understood, and why they have not understood something.

Any half-brained politician--ok, there are very few fully-brained ones!--loves talking about more testing as if that is the panacea.  And then the idiotic demagogues look across the seas at a Japan or a China or a Russia and then jingoistically beat their chests and yell out that more testing is what we need in order to beat the crap out of the countries that threaten our number one status in the world.

Seriously, is that what we really want from education?

As Diane Ravitch puts it in this NYRB essay:
There was no educational problem, it seemed, that could not be cured by more testing.
Yep. Every few years, the Geriatrics Only Party and the Democrooks take turns arguing in favor of more testing.  First it was the patriotic alarm over the Soviets. Then the economic alarm against the Japanese.  And now the economic and patriotic alarms that the Chinese are taking over the world.

There is only one word that is appropriate to describe these: chickenshit!

Back to Ravitch:
It is worth noting that American students have never received high scores on international tests. On the first such test, a test of mathematics in 1964, senior year students in the US scored last of twelve nations, and eighth-grade students scored next to last. But in the following fifty years, the US outperformed the other eleven nations by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions. This raises the question of whether the scores of fifteen-year-old students on international tests predict anything of importance or whether they reflect that our students lack motivation to do their best when taking a test that doesn’t count toward their grade or graduation.
The typical fifteen year old is immensely smarter than the chickenshit demagogues!

Tell us more, Ravitch:
Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, members of Congress, and the nation’s governors and legislators need to read: Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. Zhao, born and educated in China, now holds a presidential chair and a professorship at the University of Oregon. He tells us that China has the best education system because it can produce the highest test scores. But, he says, it has the worst education system in the world because those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism. The imposition of standardized tests by central authorities, he argues, is a victory for authoritarianism.
Yes, indeed.  A victory for authoritarianism.

So, how were things in China?  Yes, "were":
A system called keju lasted for thirteen hundred years, until 1905, when it was abolished by the emperor of the Qing dynasty. This system maintained Chinese civilization by requiring knowledge of the Confucian classics, based on memorization and writing about current affairs. There were local, provincial, and national examinations, each conferring privileges on the lucky or brilliant few who passed. Exam scores determined one’s rank in society. The keju was a means of social mobility, but for the ruling elite, it produced the most capable individuals for governing the country.
And what did it achieve for the culture that was ever so dominant?
keju diverted scholars, geniuses, and thinkers away from the study or exploration of modern science. The examination system, Zhao holds, was designed to reward obedience, conformity, compliance, respect for order, and homogeneous thinking; for this reason, it purposefully supported Confucian orthodoxy and imperial order. It was an efficient means of authoritarian social control. Everyone wanted to succeed on the highly competitive exams, but few did. Success on the keju enforced orthodoxy, not innovation or dissent. As Zhao writes, emperors came and went, but China had “no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no Industrial Revolution.”
And, for the most part, this system continues in China, South Korea, Japan, India, ... On top of that, the focus on testing means that students, teachers, parents, and everybody else tries to then figure out ways in which they can game the system. Cheating and fraud follows.

Is it any surprise then to read something like this?
The announcement by administrators of the SAT college entrance test that scores are being withheld for students from China and South Korea who took the exam earlier this month has infuriated many and raised anxiety about what for a number of them is a high-stakes college application process.
The Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the test worldwide, said Wednesday that it was withholding the scores of those who took the test on Oct. 11, at least temporarily, because of suspicions of cheating “based on specific, reliable information.” The company referred in a statement to “organizations that seek to illegally obtain test materials for their own profit, to the ultimate detriment of all students.
Ahem, isn't SAT one heck of a standardized test?  ;)
In 2007, administrators voided 900 SAT scores from South Korea. Last year, administrators canceled an exam in South Korea scheduled for May 2013 after accusations of attempts at widespread cheating were reported in the domestic news media. That forced some of the 1,500 South Korean students who had signed up for the exam to scramble to apply to take the exam elsewhere.
In November 2013, South Korean prosecutors said they had indicted eight “SAT brokers” who had hired students to memorize questions of exams taken abroad or posed as test-takers themselves, using secret cameras to take pictures of questions. Prosecutors also indicted 22 managers and teachers at test preparation companies in South Korea for buying the illegally acquired SAT data.
In both South Korea and China, academic cheating has been a long-running problem. Professors, officials and celebrities have been exposed for having plagiarized dissertations or even faked degrees.
I am worried that the Baptists and the Bootleggers will end up with a lot more of the standardized tests.  I suppose I should simply give up, shrug my shoulders, collect my paycheck, and participate in the enterprise called education whose mission is to screw the students.


4 comments:

Ramesh said...

Tests are a bit like democracy. It is full of holes, but any other system can be proven to be worse.

Imagine if we wanted to evaluate people worldwide on the sort of "testing" that you do. Some form of standardisation is inevitable if we want to compare, rank. select, across wide geographies.

You could argue why do that at all, but to me that is utopian. There has to be some process for selection, admission, etc etc.

Sure, what you do in terms of evaluation is wonderful, but it has a place and a context, I think.

Sriram Khé said...

It all depends on what we think education is for. That definition of why we educate kids and young adults will correspondingly determine what kind of subjects we teach them and how we "test" their understanding of those subjects.
Which is why you and I have disagreed often when I have blogged about the need for the humanities and the social sciences in the curriculum. Compared to me, you place a much, much higher emphasis on education being the route to maximizing economic productivity. I, however, disagree with that view.
Once we differ on that very fundamental aspect of what education is for, well, we are also going to disagree on how to provide students opportunities for them to demonstrate their competency and understanding.
I shall keep working on you and before we die I hope you will come around to my camp. Keep in mind that I have only 24 more years ;)

Anne in Salem said...

My son just received his scores from the 11 Oct SATs. Good thing the US doesn't cheat at that. The dinner table conversation that evening was far more interesting than discussing the value of standardized testing though. Instead, it concerned your descriptor - chickenshit. Not a word normally allowed in my house, at least not in my earshot. I was pleased that my over-tested memorizers understood the problems of a US official calling Netanyahu a coward and chickenshit. (Perhaps they just enjoyed the freedom of using the word in front of me!) Is their knowledge of world affairs a credit to me, instinctual in them, or a result of honors and AP classes? Hard to know. But it is good to know that some children know how to think.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, it was because of the news that I, too, used "chickenshit" instead of other colorful words ;)
Now, I am really, really happy that the official used that word to describe Netanyahu, who has been along those lines for quite some time now. Of course, such language is not the way to be productive when engaging in diplomacy.
Your high school-going son had picked up on the news, I say that is awesome! It is a credit to him and his mother.

If only Netanyahu weren't chickenshit! ;)

BTW, if you Google for chickenshit, it is all about Netanyahu ... hehehe ;)

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