Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Student or Statistic?

The other day I was chatting with a high school senior. He was bummed because his parents weren't happy with his grades. I asked what he found hard about school. He replied, "Nothing, really. I was on the A and AB honor roll my first two years of high school. I burnt out in junior year and didn't want to work that hard anymore." Even though he is not on the honor roll, the college of his choice accepted him, and he is looking forward to digging deeply into his favorite subject (music) once high school is behind him.

David, whose case of senioritis is very mild, studies diligently to stay on one honor roll or the other. Steve pressed one of David's teachers, who lives nearby, to make sure that David's dry wit wasn't getting in the way. [When asked about how he got to be so tall, David quips, "I did NOT eat my vegetables." When someone wants to know what he plans to major in college, he deadpans, "Psychology. I like messing with people's minds."] His teacher told us that he would love to have more students like David because he works hard and what he says contributes to the class discussion. At the parent teacher meeting, his Spanish teacher said that, even when he gets an A on a test, David wants to know what he missed because he cares about what he is learning. His English teacher pulled me aside at a senior parent meeting and told me how much she loved his Powerpoint presentation on Chaucer's monk. Not only was the content well done, but his wit, creativity, originality, and enthusiasm earned him a 100.

I believe the contrast between the attitudes of David and his classmate boils down to the difference between viewing a student as a person or as a statistic. Please don't take this the wrong way. I am not saying that all teachers are bad. However, because the beast unleashed by No Child Left Untested obsesses over standardized testing to assess school performance, the view of students becomes obscured by one detail: test scores. Not only are the results inaccurate and poorly measures knowledge, they neglect intangible qualities like motivation, persistence, dedication, innovative thinking, etc. While the burnt out senior has been tested and retested for most of his school career, David took his first standardized test last year, his junior year!

My perspective started to change the year the state of Pennsylvania required standardized tests for Pamela, which I relate in greater detail in a written narration I did on a talk by Lisa Cadora. The upshot is that, when Pamela was working at a first grade level in math, she got two different math scores on two different standardized tests in the same school year: pre-Kindergarten on the Peabody and third grade on the WIAT! I didn't realize it at the time, but that was when my civil disobedience against standardized testing was born. From that year on, I procrastinated giving Pamela and David standardized tests. Either we lived in a state that didn't require them or we moved often enough for me to stall. I wouldn't recommend that for people who never move because, by ignoring minor points of homeschooling law, you might face harsh consequences.

Just when I was ready for a paradigm shift, I started reading Charlotte Mason's books. I believe her principles resulted from her experience as a young teacher in Victorian England's very early protoype of NCLB called "Payment by Results." As described by Brendan Rapple, the government allocated funds to schools according to how well students tested. To earn the highest pay, teachers gravitated to mindless repetition to drill facts into their students and limited curriculum to the required facts. In 1869, Matthew Arnold stated, "It tends to make the instruction mechanical, and to set a bar to duly extending it." He was adamant about its flaws, "By concentrating the teacher's attention upon enabling his scholars to pass in the three elementary matters, it must injure the teaching, narrow it, and make it mechanical." The system encouraged teachers to abandon children on the edges (the gifted and the at-risk) and focus on the middle.
Because of the striving for uniformity of attainments, there was little financial incentive to encourage clever children to realise their full capabilities. Weaker pupils, those perceived as unlikely to pass, were also often neglected by teachers. It was alleged that slower children were occasionally told to stay away from school on the inspection day and that some dull children were refused admittance to schools altogether. (Rapple)

While Mason and her contemporaries may have differed in how to change education, they agreed about restoring personhood through "the insistence on treating children as individual persons requiring love, understanding, and respect, and not merely as grant earning entities" (Rapple). While England abandoned at the turn of the century, it fell for the same schtick at the turn of the next century. Every year on the same day, ten- and eleven-year-old pupils take the national SATS. That is until last May when teachers played hooky on test day and took their students on field trips to museums and parks instead. Michael Rosen, the former children's laureate, expressed disenchantment with testing well, "I think we are obsessed by giving kids scores, measuring them and producing research that is based on statistics. This biometric approach to human behaviour is to my mind corrupting. It tries to reduce the variability in human behaviour. The difference between humans and machines is that with machines, you can keep all the variables in your test constant . . . you can't do that with human beings." A quarter of primary schools boycotted the SATs to protest their interference with productive learning.

In a recent post at ChildLightUSA, Dr. John Thorley shared an anecdote about the situation across the pond,
I was talking the other day, at the half-term holiday, to our grandson Joel, who moved into secondary school in September. "Ten times better than primary school," Joel insisted. "Why?"’ he went on. "Because we don’t spend all the time practising for those awful SATs tests." Now let me stress that I don’t blame the primary school; all primary schools throughout the country do the same. The last year in primary school is devoted largely to getting children through the SATs tests in Maths, English and Science, because the national "League Tables" are based entirely on the results of these tests. Joel is fascinated by History and Geography, and he is quite musical, but he had done nothing of any of these for the last year and a half of the primary school. Now he gets his History, Geography, Music (he is learning to play the guitar), and many other things, and from Joel’s enthusiasm they appear to be well taught, with an emphasis on getting out and about to look at things and finding things out for themselves, all within a structured and caring environment that stresses friendship and helping one another.

Stealing an idea from this post on the financial cost of NCLB, I came up with my own graphic. "During the 2007- 08 school year, states will spend almost $1.1 billion on these tests, according to Eduventures Inc., an education industry research firm." That is such a large number to envision. This graphic represents how many items you could buy with that whopper of a figure. You could download 1,111,111,111 MP3 songs for composer study and folk songs with that money. Or, you could pay for 158,273,381 Leonardo da Vinci print books by Dover. This graphic does not take into account how much more time could be spent on neglected subjects like the arts and nature study.

What You Can Do with $1.1 Billion (Pick One)

You may be wondering how David did on his first standardized test. For all my bravado, I must admit I was nervous about the high school exit exam. I had no idea what was on it. I had never intended for him to take it because I thought we would homeschool him through his senior year. He chose otherwise and I respect him enough as a person to let him make that choice at the age of sixteen. I made sure to tell him the important things like not leaving a stray mark and erasing changes completely. He passed the math portion of the test last October and the language arts and writing on his second try last April. There are seniors who have been measured and tested for all these years and still have yet to pass the exit exam.

David took his ACT last June and you would expect some consistency in results. Right? Ha! I just love the vagaries of bubble tests. He scored very well on the language arts and writing, and his math and science scores were not that hot. Is it a big deal? No! His college of choice (The Citadel) has already accepted him, and we are wrapping up the medical qualifications. He has already qualified for the Life Scholarship ($5,500) and he is submitting other applications too.

When David comes home from school, I never ask him about his homework or his tests. I ask him questions like "What are you reading in English? Tell me something new you learned in history. Did anything funny happen today?" Yesterday, David told me he was reading the part of the narrator in Pygamalion. I asked if that was the play by George Bernard Shaw. He answered in the affirmative and added that his classmate reading the part of the flower shop girl sounded hilarious. Then I asked, "Do you know what musical is based on the play?" David thought for few seconds and told me My Fair Lady. I asked him if his teacher told him that in class. Then, he said what every Charlotte Mason teacher loves to hear, "No, nobody told me that. I just knew it."


Bonnie said...

Great thoughts to think upon.
Yes, I knew that too, tell David!
Thanks for all the links and more to read.

Mrs. Tenkely said...

Great take on my info graphic! Putting it into a visual really puts all of the focus on standardized testing into focus.