19 Jun 2012

Why do tests matter, anyway?

On Wednesday, the New York Post reported that parents are pulling their kids out of the young, progressive and $32,000 per-year Blue School at tremendous rates because their kids are “barely learning to read.”

Originally founded in 2006 as a playgroup by members of the Blue Man Group and their wives, the Blue School places a premium on curiosity, collaboration, and creative exploration. Students and teachers work in teams to establish and construct curriculum. There are no required books or set arrival times. Grade levels currently range from prekindergarten to third grade, although a fourth grade is being added next year.

Instead of tests, Blue School teachers use “observations, field notes, photographs, portfolios, and other appropriate forms of documentation” to evaluate student progress—a system that allows teachers to assess development holistically and without comparing students to one another. Students are encouraged to learn through play, projects and reflection on their environment. Curriculum is emergent, which means that material is taught as it becomes relevant to students’ explorations and interests. Sounds like a dream!

…Until you realize second graders at the Blue School still can’t read.

Before the backdrop of recent outcry against the growing importance of standardized tests, the Blue School’s radical methods appear to represent desperate moves to get away from the mania—attempts to refocus education on the process of learning, rather than on its end results. Emphasis on standardized testing is at an all-time high; such tests determine not only the fate of NYC teachers and schools, but also whether students are permitted to advance to the next grade level. Success on standardized tests is also a prerequisite for admission to elite NYC high schools and universities nationwide.

Criticism of standardized tests seems to flow in two, interrelated directions. On one hand, parents are frustrated that measurement of their children’s achievement and potential has boiled down to a single score. Such feelings were manifest in the media’s treatment of the “talking pineapple question”, a nonsense story paired with nonsensical questions that recently appeared on New York State 8th grade ELA exams. Parents, teachers, and students alike were outraged that such a screaming error could appear on high-stakes exams. In response, the state eventually decided not to count the question when calculating scores.

Critics are also concerned about the effects of standardized tests on teaching. Under overwhelming pressure to get students to perform, some teachers are now prioritizing the pedagogy of “teaching to the test.” In other words, rather than exploring subjects in depth to instill comprehensive understanding, many teachers are relying on “drill and kill” methods that may improve scores, but foster only superficial comprehension of a given topic.

These are serious problems that must be addressed, but eliminating tests altogether is not the answer. Working in the admissions test-prep industry, I have come to see standardized tests like the SAT as useful teaching tools. Tests function to direct and structure curriculum; they focus teacher and student attention on developing and improving skills that are necessary for success in school and beyond. Furthermore, standardized tests like the SAT ask students to apply skills they have learned in new ways to solve tricky questions. Studying for such tests can actually train students to approach problems from diverse angles and find creative solutions.

The high stakes of tests are important here too—many highschoolers commit to independent reading only after they experience the brutality of Critical Reading on the SAT. In other words, the tangible goals and rewards associated with tests can nurture student motivation. Also and perhaps most importantly, studying for tests like the SAT teaches students to proceed with confidence, diligence, and determination despite not initially being the best at something.

It remains to be seen whether the Blue School’s alternative teaching methods can eventually instill core academic skills like literacy and math. For now, it seems the school is facing a harsh reality that validating free and independent exploration cannot come at the expense of giving students structure, direction, and discipline. Both elements must combine for children to grow into capable, responsible, and curious learners.


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