A few years ago, The Boston Globe published an excerpt from the MCAS, those Massachusetts standardized tests that are supposed to help guarantee that no child is left behind, etc. As far as I can tell, test results “reveal” what we already know: schools in well-to-do areas do well; schools in poor areas fare poorly.
There are, no doubt, plenty of things wrong with today’s public schools. There’s also no doubt – at least in mind – that imposing pressure on students to perform well on standardized tests, and spending way too much time ‘teaching to the test,’ doesn’t help fix much of what’s wrong.
When I think about what’s wrong, one thing I always go back to is the experience of a friend of mine who has volunteered for many years in the public schools in a large New England city. One of the things she’s done is assess whether incoming kindergartners from poor backgrounds will be ready to learn to read by first grade.
Forget recognizing letters and words.
M has tested kids who, when presented with a book, do not know how to handle it, do not know how it works.
Part of her assessment involves showing the kids flash cards and asking them to identify the pictures on them.
Here are some of the objects her kids have flunked identifying:
Apple. Umbrella. Lamb.
This all suggests a paucity of experience and attention that is almost unfathomable.
Not knowing that you can turn the page of a book? Not having the word for an umbrella?
This means you’re coming from a world where no one reads, no one tries to help their children understand what’s in the world around them, and no one even bothers to turn on Sesame Street.
This, I suspect, is a lot of what the problem is in poor, inner city schools today: a lot of the kids come from such terribly deprived and impoverished (not necessarily materially, but definitely experientially) backgrounds that they have little chance of catching up to kids who cut their teeth gumming board books like Runaway Bunny.
How standardized tests help with this problem, I don’t know.
But I digress.
When I read through the sample MCAS questions, I was stymied on a few of them.
Given how well I had done on the standardized tests of my youth, I was somewhat surprised by this.
But I kept rereading some of the questions, and found that, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was being asked without going through the answers one by one and trying to rationalize the question based on the list of possible answers.
No wonder so many kids don’t do well on these tests.
Anyway, as a result of my earlier graze through the MCAS, I wasn’t all that surprised by a recent article in The New York Times on a controversial reading selection in New York’s current standardized reading tests for eighth graders.
The passage is a whimsical, nonsense retelling of the tortoise and the hare. Only in this case, the tortoise is a pineapple.
The pineapple challenges that hare to run a marathon, and the hares fellow creatures figure that the pineapple must have something up his sleeve, so they root for the pineapple to win. Only the pineapple doesn’t even bother to run. So the hare wins, the pineapple gets eaten, and the moral of the story is revealed: Pineapples don’t have sleeves.
This story reminds me of a bet my husband often makes with kids:
Race you to the corner for a dollar.
After the kid takes off, Jim ambles on at his own pace. When the winner comes looking for his dollar, Jim points out that he’s the one who’s owed a buck. After all, he didn’t say he was going to win. Just that he was willing to race to the corner for a dollar.
Anyway, after having the test-takers read this nonsense tale, the questions are all serious: why did the animals eat the pineapple, what does having a trick up your sleeve mean, etc. There was no question that asked whether the story was supposed to be silly or not, which would have cued the kids that it was nonsense, and no doubt alleviated some of their anxieties about how to answer.
Because what happens when the kids read the passage is that a lot of them are thrown off because the story was so nonsensical. And so they began psyching themselves out on the answers:
…Kate Scheuer, [a] student, said the jokiness of the story made her nervous. “I thought I was getting it wrong,” she said. “I was second-guessing myself because it’s so ridiculous.”
Deborah Maier, an educator who’s not a big fan of this sort of testing:
…said the pineapple passage was “an outrageous example of what’s true of most of the items on any test, it’s just blown up larger.”
…Even very intelligent children, she said, can sometimes overthink an answer and get it wrong.
A more legitimate question for a nonsense fable, she said, would have been something like, “Is this a spoof? Is it intended to make sense?”
I like to think that, even as an eighth grader, I would have been able to answer the questions “correctly” and figured out right away that the story in itself was a take off on an Aesop fable.
But when I was in eighth grade, the stakes weren’t all that high. We hadn’t been prepping all year to take standardized tests, beyond all that rote learning and mental arithmetic. Our school wasn’t going to be condemned if a lot of kids flunked it. (Which is not to say that our school shouldn’t have been condemned for plenty of other reasons.) And our academic futures weren’t going to depend on whether we “got” a moral that pointed out that pineapples don’t have sleeves.
There are plenty of other pressures that today’s kids face that we never had to, largely around the uncertainty about our country’s place in a world that technology is rendering far more fluid and borderless than the one we all grew up in.
Sure, today’s kids are skilled users of all sorts of nifty technology. But it’s not just about being able to txt and run iPhone apps that’ll hold you in good stead. To succeed in this world, they’ll need to know how to think more critically, process through (and evaluate) far more information, act more entrepreneurially, adapt to more rapid change, and develop superb technical, computational, and communications skills.
Pineapple sleeves or not, do standardized tests really help with any of that?