If we’re not going to use it later, do we really need to learn it?
This post is one of two reflecting on education as stimulated by two articles, one from the Washington Post and one from the Chronicle of Higher Education. What is the purpose of education? Why do we need to learn certain things–do we need to learn certain things at all? These are age-old debates and are closely related to debates about how we teach, as well. Below, I will consider the points of the Washington Post’s article and then conclude with some reflections, similarly, a follow up post will evaluate the claim in the Chronicle’s article and reflection. To read the original articles for yourself, simply click on the title in each post and a link will open the articles in a new screen.
This post from Monday on The Washington Post website discussed the challenges faced by an accomplished adult on the school board who took the standardized tests assigned to 10th graders in his state. Guest author Marion Brady described the adult in the following way:
By any reasonable measure, my friend is a success. His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles. Enough time of his own to give serious attention to his school board responsibilities. The margins of his electoral wins and his good relationships with administrators and teachers testify to his openness to dialogue and willingness to listen.
On the morning that he took the test, Brady spoke with his friend and listened as he explained that he was certain he did not do well. Subsequently, the results came back and the school board member had this to say:
“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.
He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.
“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.”
In other words, this is a bright and accomplished guy who got his butt kicked by a tenth grade standardized exam. Is it because he is so many years removed from his tenth grade studies? He considered that point, but argued that it isn’t really relevant in the end, saying:
“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”
This is the same question students ask, of course, and many struggle to see the point. Does anyone recall asking or a fellow student asking, “Why do we have to memorize multiplication tables when we have calculators?” I recall that question as late as the eighth grade, long after they were supposed to be memorized. I also recall the answers–how good am I?–at least, some of the answers to that question. A: You won’t always have a calculator at hand. (To which I snarkily raised my left hand to brandish my calculator watch–yes, I had a calculator watch in junior high, are you really surprised?) A: It’s important for your brain functioning to be able to do this. (This is not the answer that I got then, but this is what they meant as far as I understood it.) A: You aren’t allowed to use a calculator on the test. Ok, there were probably others I don’t actually remember, but those were the ones that stick.
Math classes and curricula do, in fact, try to answer these questions for students through the word problems. They seek to provide students with a real-life context and ask the student to determine which tools from math will allow them to solve the problem. Still, our school board member would retort with the following comment:
“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.”
The article’s take away, here, is that the math tests are damaging. They are, it is argued, doing more damage to students than providing the state with adequate assessments of teacher performance. The school board member is further quoted as concluding thusly:
“If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.
“It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?”
“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”
It is difficult to know what impact these test results have on students without seeing some hard data investigating those questions–which is not provided in the article, but the daunting supposition of the school board member is hanging ove Brady’s understanding of the tests’ impact on students. For Brady, this is proof-positive that the tests are sign of a larger failure that has little to do with teaching or teacher accountability:
There you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.
Those decisions are shaped not by knowledge or understanding of educating, but by ideology, politics, hubris, greed, ignorance, the conventional wisdom, and various combinations thereof. And then they’re sold to the public by the rich and powerful.
All that without so much as a pilot program to see if their simplistic, worn-out ideas work, and without a single procedure in place that imposes on them what they demand of teachers: accountability.
Now, let me first say that I am not clear what Brady means by “corporately driven education change.” Still, aside from that, it is clear that he is fed up with standardize testing, and takes a great deal of hope from the fact that schools and principals are too, referencing a New York Times piece (linked in his article).
I have to confess that I think there is an unspoken or perhaps unintended implication–which I alluded to above. If the testing of certain math skills reveals those math skills to be unnecessary for later careers, than is it really an indictment of testing or of the math skills included on the test that no one needed? Is the issue that the these tests are unreasonable or that the tested skills are unnecessary?
My bigger issue with standardized tests has always been more in the realm the way the evaluate skills and knowledge and less with the fact that try to do so. One of the essential factors in math is that it trains your brain to operate a certain way. I recently learned from a fellow Rotarian, that many of his fellow math students in college took it as a pre-law track to work on problem-solving skills. The point of the test is demonstrate that the student has learned the skills, even if only temporarily (alas!) for the students’ developing brain. While the argument in this case has questioned the valued of the tested skills, I always wonder the value of being tested with multiple choice questions.
As a historian, multiple choice selection is not a particularly useful skill, but evaluating a primary source is–a skill that is exercised by the historian in writing or oral papers, not multiple choice tests. When I took one of my AP tests I did better on the essay portion than the multiple choice portion, I think that is the ideal, as I was grappling with complex concepts instead of trivia. I seldom required 101 or 102 students to do much memorization, precisely because I couldn’t see the value of a future pilot or engineer or nurse knowing the Roman emperors in order. I did however see something extremely useful in their learning about the incredible influence of Rome on our culture; and, I also put value on their learning the necessary skills to critically read an account of an emperor’s reign from a source that might be biased against or in favor of the emperor with the end being the development of critically reading and recognizing bias in a text. This can be tested with multiple choice, of course, but not as well as with an essay. I confess I am not certain what the corollary for math would be, but I am certain and handful of math professors or engineers or statisticians, etc., know exactly what it would be.
The point is this, however, the curriculum is called into question by Barry’s evaluation as much as testing is, if not more so. Is the curriculum given false relevance by testing and, perhaps, college acceptance boards? Is there a reason for learning extraneous knowledge with its attendant skills? Assuming we answer the latter question in the affirmative, is there a need for testing it and do tests actually accurately evaluate what the students have learned?
To follow up on this I will consider the post from the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website which considers the concerns from the workplace about graduates and their lack of skills for the jobs they seek.