How do Friends Feel about Standardized Tests?
On May 20, The New York Times ran a story about Jake Plumley, who had failed a standardized test, but only because the testing company had made an error. Jake had actually passed, but he had to give up a good job and go to summer school, to prepare for the test again. Many similar errors have been reported, and students' lives have been disrupted.
Errors by testing services are a minor problem, however, compared to two major ones: First, Does the government lead the people, or do the people lead the government? (Who determines the standards? Federal or state government, local community, or parents?) And second, do we all have to be the same?
In National Standards in Education, Diane Ravitch argues in favor, "to identify a body of knowledge and skills that children should possess. Standards should be "clear, precise, and brief, . . . they should be about academic subject matter, not attitudes or affective skills, . . . and they should be testable." (New York Times, 2/15/95). On the other hand, Brian Hixon, a teacher in California, writes (New York Times, 1/25/00), "as I teach from day to day, the new expectations from the standards movement are forcing a change in my perceptions. . . I no longer see the students the way I once did -- certainly not in the same exuberant light as when I first started teaching five years ago. Where once there were "challenging' or "marginal' students, I am now beginning to see liabilities. Where once there was a student of "limited promise,' there is now an inescapable deficit that all available efforts will only nominally affect. . . No apologies or arguments about extenuating circumstances are going to shield me from the new state edict: Improve, or expect us at your doorstep.
In my own teaching at the University of Colorado, I never use machine-graded tests. Perhaps machine tests are all right for simple exercises like recognizing parallel lines, but not for either advanced math or the social sciences. I always ask for essays, in which the students must analyze facts they already know, put them in logical order, and reason out an opinion. There is no way to test critical thinking except through the professor's judgment. My students are all good mathematicians. They could pass the standardized tests with flying colors, but they do not know how to think critically unless I give them exercises in it.
Who decides how much math a student should learn? Milwaukee planned a test that "stressed word problems creating real-life situations. It forced students to apply math concepts, think analytically, and show their work." (Washington Post Weekly, 3/3/97.) Do you think such a test could be prepared by the federal government and approved by Congress?
Many other questions affect our country's education. Let me raise some of them, leaving the answers to you. At the end of this letter, I will propose a blanket answer to all of them:
I propose that all these questions should be answered by parents and students, who would choose their schools. No one should be forced to be like anyone else. In my book, The Moral Economy (Michigan 1998), I propose a way. I haven't found many who agree with it (except a few way-out economists, like me). Certainly my own students do not agree with it. But I think it will happen in about 300 years. Think back to the state of Western education 300 years ago (no public schools, most persons could not read and write) and consider all that has changed since then. I also feel that any economic structure that makes sense &emdash; and I think my education plan does &emdash; will ultimately be adopted, given enough time, provided special interests or power concentrations will not prevent it. So, here is my proposal.
Please write me if you see any reason why this system would not work, other than that it is, for the current century, politically impossible. Please let me know if you think it is a Quakerly response to our educational problems. Above all, if is is not instituted by the year 2400, send a message to explain to my successor why not. Thank you.
Sincerely your Friend,
I don't know numbers, and I believe that Americans have more of that prized gitgo. But, a lot of what is credited to Americans should be credited to foreigners in the US. A lot. A really large amount. It would be interesting to see a study of prized American traits vs a country of elementary education (through 8th grade). A fair percentage of the remaining explanation of American gitgo can be credited to aspects of our society other than our education system.
I would add to your letter that with trade comes knowledge of the "other" which reduces chances for war, but obviously does not eliminate it. In Yugoslavia, the media reports Milosevic put out on the "other" conflicted with people's personal knowledge, yet people nevertheless began to accept the media reports.
Karen Street, Berkeley (CA) Friends Meeting.
As an alternative to your point #5, you might have a negative auction for the job of handling the students no one wants--i.e., each would go to the school (otherwise qualified) that demanded the smallest subsidy.
Stephen Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.
If we are to give public funds to schools, whether directly or through intermediaries, we want to assure fiscal responsibility and assure that schools meet some standards. Do this and you end up with a government school system. The system you suggest has some similarities with the GI Bill. It worked well for those who chose Harvard (or Oberlin), but there were problems with institutions whose main purpose turned out to be enrichment of the founders rather than education of students. Sad but true.
This, like some of your other suggestions, relies on the customer having excellent information and judgment and on the provider having excellent ethics. We're not there yet and if we ever get there it will be long after you and I and our children are gone. We need systems that take into account our limitations as well as our strengths. I'm not convinced that the Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone necessarily means we will reach that perfection.
Vici Oshiro, Minneapolis (MN) Friends Meeting.
I am very uneasy about your proposal to require all students to borrow money needed for their education, even beginning with elementary education. This seems to imply that the only value of education is to increase earning potential. I believe, however, that a well-educated citizenry is important for the benefit of all society. I have read that part of the reason the United States was so productive after World War II was that the GI Bill made it possible for many members of society to go to college that otherwise would not have done so. Even those who did not use the GI Bill to go to college probably were better off because they could find jobs provided by entrepreneurial college graduates. Instead of a loan fund, how about a GI Bill for everyone, even starting with elementary school?
Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Meeting.
I would like to see a better defense of why education should not be free to all. Perhaps the answer lies in "the more you pay, the more it's worth", but I am not sure I go along with that. The biggest problem in education is the "problem children", the delinquents and low IQ students who require extra resources. For the rest of us, the solution is simple: the better a student's performance the better should be the educational opportunities provided. The same could be applied to teachers. This would be a little tough to do well because it would require subjective evaluation on a student-by-student and teacher-by-teacher basis.
Our children are our future. Parents, schools and peers are all important influences, but where parents and peers are part of the problem, as in our inner cities, schools become critically important. Many of them are "failing schools." We have to find ways to improve them. Lord Kelvin said many years ago: "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it."
Gordon Johnson Jr., Trinity United Methodist Church, Alexandria, VA.
National standards will allow comparative judgments between areas and schools. In addition, localities should be free to decide for themselves what they want to measure to evaluate their schools' performance. Let's even ask the schools themselves to come up with the standards they want to use. The important thing is to get started. Markets (the "experts") will then refine and improve the measuring process.
Gordon Johnson, Sr., Episcopal, Alexandria, VA
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