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The magical standardized exams December 9, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, math, older son, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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I’ve been reading a lot of different takes on the whole fiasco of the Florida school board member with two MS degrees who failed the state’s 10th grade standardized test.  His name is Rick Roach.

While it doesn’t seem to be a popular view, I am agreeing with Roach: the test really doesn’t have anything to do with how people will fare in the real world.  I’d dare say that grades are probably a better predictor, although they have their flaws, too.  Students who do well in school tend to be those who read teachers well and know what they want.  They don’t have to be very bright to figure out how to keep teachers happy, follow the rules, and, in general, conform.  They stay organized, hand in their work, which was hopefully done well, and keep the people around them happy.  I hate to say it, but these are the skills that tend to help people at a job, not passing a standardized exam.

In my view, people who do well in life are those who are able to conform to the expectations of those around them OR those who follow their passions and work very hard at them.  I don’t believe that tests do much more than how well one takes tests.  And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure all the emphasis on getting kids up to speed in science, math, and reading is doing much good and may, in fact, be doing a significant amount of harm.

The reason I say this is the experience with my older son, who is now a sophomore in high school.  So let’s start out with a shocker: he got kicked out of school recently.  He was going part-time, but he wasn’t sufficiently interested and never made it a priority to be there.  This is the same kid who became so engrossed in studying US history that he passed both CLEP exams on the subject, earning him a full year of US history credits at most colleges…in 9th grade.

We decided we better start looking at how he’s going to get his degree, so I figured that since he’s almost 16, he can start prepping to take the GED.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is a high school equivalency exam, but you can’t take it until you turn 16.  It tests on reading, writing, science, social studies, and math.  While he has had a decent amount of algebra, he’s never had a formal science class except for one in 6th grade.  However, he passed the practice GED with no problems, meaning that he probably won’t even need to study before he can take the exam in a couple months.  He’s very happy about that because he doesn’t want to spend his time studying for that: he wants to study to take the macroeconomics CLEP instead.  The kid who doesn’t want to be bothered to make it to school on time will work his but off to study something he’s interested in.

I have a kid who is good at passing exams.  I don’t have a kid who is a conformist and understands the need to be places on time.  (Well, I think he understands…but he’s not going to make the effort unless he really cares about it.)  Unfortunately, I think his lack of conformity is going to hurt him a lot in life, probably more than his exam-taking ability will help him.  He’ll have an easy time earning his high school equivalency, but what good will this do him if he’s not going to be able to keep a job if he decides he’s not sufficiently interested in working?

I have also come to the realization that he really doesn’t need to know much math.  In fact, I think most people don’t.  Being a scientist, I use math day in and day out.  In my work as an engineer, I don’t use nearly as much math as you’d think.  In fact, like Roach said, I know a lot of people who don’t use math all that often.  A lot of those people are engineers.  A good chunk of engineering education involves teaching processes that invalidate the need for much higher level math.  Yes, a lot of it is a cookbook for boiling things down to high school algebra.  Now, the good engineers will have a conceptual understanding of what’s underlying those steps, and the really good engineers will understand it mathematically.  But realistically, most of what they learn in college, in terms of math, won’t be used.  And I say this as someone who is frustrated because I’ve had a lot of math and realize I’m forgetting much of it because I don’t use it.

Going back to the discussion on this emphasis toward pushing more math, science, and engineering hurting students, I’d have to say that there are a lot more kids like my son than people acknowledge.  Kids are going to be successful in life when they follow their passion.  I’ve seen kids who showed no motivation in classes go and learn the information taught in those classes because they wanted to work on something that required that information.  There is so much emphasis on establishing superiority in these academic areas (when we can’t even manage competency in most cases) that we’re not allowing kids a variety of experiences they need to find their interests.

Our education system provides no real motive for learning aside vague promises of getting a good job after high school.  I’m sure most students think that their job will be a lot like high school, which is probably not all that inspiring.  There is no real motivation for them to learn, their curiosity is damped, they’re never allowed to excel unless it’s in an area where our system is currently focusing.  And even then, bright kids are bored because they’re not really allowed to excel and dig into things on a deep level: they have to stay lock-step with kids who have no interest.

The whole ruse reminds me of Fahrenheit 451, where the whole society is distracted by notions of this or that trivial thing being important.  Our society is fixated on test scores and ‘competency’ in science and math and writing.  However, we’ve failed to pay attention to how and why kids really learn, and we’re delusional to think that competence in testing is the only indicator of who will succeed in life.

Of course, colleges will have you believe this, and there’s a huge industry surrounding making you believe that and providing you with more and more tests you’ll need to pass (for a sizable fee) despite the fact that grades are still the best predictor of college performance.  There’s also the politicians who are also convinced that this is the way to fix our country’s problems…most of whom benefit from the system as it is because their kids almost always end up as winners in the education race.  It also makes them look like they’re doing something substantial for education, which is why we have the No Child Left Behind legacy.

The gist of this is that most tests are assumed to be measuring things they aren’t measuring.  The SAT is not going to tell you if you are going to be successful in life.  It can’t even tell you that you are going to do well in college.  We are imbuing these tests with magical powers: they have become our Sorting Hat.  We believe in the magic of these exams to put people in some sort of ‘succeed at life’ or ‘fail at life’ category because it’s easier than looking at the realities of how our educational system is truly dysfunctional.

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