Worse than Teaching to the Test

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Blogging at The Washington Post, civics teacher Valerie Strauss delivers the following damning indictment of the widespread misuse of standardized testing throughout our government-run educational system:

First (and I acknowledge that I bear some culpability here), in the AP U.S. Government exam the constructed responses are called "free response questions" and are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing-- no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics. [links added for context]
I disagree with some aspects of her analysis. For one thing, "teaching to the test" would not be as big a deal if so many other things weren't already wrong. Nevertheless, Strauss provides a valuable, up-to-date snapshot of the state of education in America a decade after doomed Bush-era "reform" attempts. It is interesting to note that the system cheats students twice: first, by entrenching poor pedagogical methods, and second, by frustrating better teachers to the point that many quit.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I enjoyed your blast from the past - lack of generalities is general - and how appropriate it is for today's post.

A large plurality of my siblings are involved in teaching - from the elementary to the university level - and there is little doubt in their minds that something is seriously wrong with the system. Trouble is that no one seems to know what to do.

One of my younger siblings removed his daughter from the public school because with the "benefit" of their pedagogy, her math skills were declining. That, along with the PC dogma that is so much a part of "schooling" nowadays was such that he figured he'd save time just teaching her himself rather than trying to repair the damage done daily.

My father, who was a botany teacher at university, began his teaching career in the mid-60's. He used to administer essay tests and would grade on grammar, composition, punctuation and the like. By the late 70's he had to stop that practice - otherwise he would have failed a majority of students on their lack of English composition skills leaving aside their mastery of the subject at hand.

Robert Heinlein, writing in the 1960's said that he considered that America was in her 3rd generation of illiteracy then; based on the curriculum that his backwoods grandfather studied, I can certainly understand that viewpoint. I don't know if you've seen the 8th grade graduation test that circulated on the internet a few years ago, dating from the turn of the 20th century, but it tends to buttress Heinlein's point.

It does seem, though, that we are sinking into a morass of the unconceptual "education." And on such a scale that trends in opposition are mere fingers in the dike - to change the metaphor.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


I may have seen that test you refer to.

I also remember seeing an older textbook, from a generation before at some point in grade school and being surprised that it was geared towards sixth-graders. I was below sixth grade then, but it didn't seem like I'd be at the level it was aiming at any time soon.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, gotta agree with all of this. In particular, as regards this: "A large plurality of my siblings are involved in teaching - from the elementary to the university level - and there is little doubt in their minds that something is seriously wrong with the system. Trouble is that no one seems to know what to do."

I'm reminded of one of Richard Mitchell's delightful comments: After sober and judicious consideration, and weighing one thing against another in the interests of reasonable compromise, H. L. Mencken concluded that a startling and dramatic improvement in American education required only that we hang all the professors and burn down the schools. His uncharacteristically moderate proposal was not adopted. Those who actually knew more about education than Mencken did could see that his plan was nothing more than cosmetic and would in fact provide only an outward appearance of improvement. Those who knew less, on the other hand, had somewhat more elaborate plans of their own, and they just happened to be in charge of the schools.

The point being, you'd still have the teacher-trainers and their cult of emotionalist mindlessness: We have reached a point at which even Mencken’s sound advice would be no help. Sure, we could probably burn down all the colleges and hang all the professors, but that would still leave us with fifty state departments of education, and a federal one, hundreds of educationistic research institutes and curriculum development outfits, a like number of publishers and learning materials designers and manufacturers, who knows how many awareness-orientated teachers’ centers, and who can count what else, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Unfortunately, burning the colleges and hanging the professors just won’t do it. Our schools, a parody of education, are impervious to anything less than revolution-obliteration and reconstitution.

And Mitchell did as much as anyone in the trenches reasonably could to analyze the septic philosophy of education of our entrenched miseducators...

Snedcat said...

And pursuant to the preceding, I'll add that I've had to teach future teachers (or at least education majors--they might not have become teachers), and the ones I dealt with (future high school English teachers) were a remarkably stupid, intellectually lazy, ill-educated lot. On my course evaluations, for example, they complained that I taught more than was needed for the upcoming quiz. Oh horror of Lovecraftian horrors!, which I guess makes me a Shoggoth at least. (The book was not a great choice but we were stuck with it, so I went in for what I think they call "course enrichment" or somesuch nonsense and what normal people call "making sure the basics are actually covered right.")

The other students--computer science majors, for example, and history majors--greatly appreciated it, but not our future teachers: One of them (most likely, since I have a good idea which of my students wrote it since it fit the idiosyncracies of her speech) wrote, "He needs to take that big flagpole out of his ass. I don't care how other languages do things, I'm here to learn how to teach English." (At a departmental get-together, my chairman said that if I got any more such evaluations, they might be forced to give me tenure. I laughed and said, "Clearly I'm not in the school of education." Heh.)

Early in the class, before I learned many of the future teachers were as humorless as they were stupid and unmotivated, one of them asked, "Will this be on the quiz?" with the bored whine of a stereotypical bad student, and I smiled and said, "Yes, and so will the rest of the chapter that we haven't covered, so you'd better study hard over the weekend."

"But that's not faaaaaair!!!"

I smiled and said, "Don't worry, I'm only joking."

"But thaaaaat's not fuuuuuny!!!!!"

I laughed out loud and said, "I thought it was." Some of the non-education majors chuckled, but not her: if looks could maim, they'd have carried me out in a basket.

Fittingly, the beginning of the next semester I passed her as she was whining on her cell phone to a friend, "And he quizzed us on the Book of Daniel, which we read all the way back in last semester. That's just not faaaair!!!!" (Or perhaps The Book of Daniel. It could have been either a religion class or an English class.) Heaven forfend a future English teacher remember books from one semester (or week) to the next--oh, how brightly the lamp of the love of learning burns in Happy Hoosierland!

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for bringing the wise words and acerbic wit of Richard Mitchell to bear on this issue, Snedcat.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, I wrote, "the ones I dealt with (future high school English teachers) were a remarkably stupid, intellectually lazy, ill-educated lot."

I should point out that I was easy-going and downright eupeptic about them until I became privy to how they cheated on tests. Yeah, it was really amateurish stuff: Students would love a teacher so clearly unable to recognize what I should consider the basic methods of covering your tracks when cheating--they'd have the highest grades in the school.

Now, our school had a policy that if you made an F, you could repeat the class and have the F expunged. The sad thing is that the teacher-wannabe who seems to have been the ringleader had failed the class twice already. Mind you, there was serious legal risk in actually accusing a student of cheating (!), so we were discouraged from doing so even when it was painfully obvious (!!), so instead on the alleged ringleading culprit's final we simply counted off all the incorrect answers, then counted off the correct answers we could tell were due to cheating until we reached a grade sufficient to raise the total class score overall to D-, and decided to be "charitable" with the rest of the test. Charitable, of course, partly to the student, but mostly to future teachers of the course.

Gus Van Horn said...

Nice reminder of how corruption feeds on itself with your example of the inherent corruption educational system being magnified (as if it needed it) by that of the more inane aspects of our legal system.