Education's pendulum: Thinkers or test takers?
The people of a large and mighty nation wonder why their schools can't do more to imitate those of another large, powerful nation across the Pacific Ocean. But this time it's not the United States seeking to emulate the schools of an Asian country — it's China seeking to emulate ours, at least to some extent. China is pushing for more emphasis on building creative skills and less on high-stress, high-stakes testing, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Under the existing system, a single entrance exam determines whether students attend college, and which one. Talk about teaching to the test: The last year of high school is often given over to cramming for the exam. In at least one classroom, students were placed on intravenous drips of amino acids in preparation for the test, in the belief that it would help their memories and provide an energy boost; in another sad case, a girl was not told about her father's death for two months to avoid disrupting her studies. The recent backlash against the tests includes complaints that students are being fed facts by rote rather than being taught to think critically and create. Two years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao lamented the failure of Chinese schools to turn out innovative thinkers with strong analytical skills. "We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity," he said. He even quoted Albert Einstein's famous line about imagination being more important than knowledge. This isn't the first time that a nation with a top-ranked education system has sought to reproduce some of the qualities that have long marked American schools. Ten years ago, Japan embarked on a series of major reforms to reduce stress, de-emphasize memorization and foster more creative thinking. It shortened the school calendar (from six days a week to five) and adopted curricula that encouraged children to create their own projects. More control was placed in local hands, a move away from centralized authority. A few years earlier, Singapore took similar steps. The reason these nations are concerned isn't just that they want their students to feel fulfilled and happy. The ability to innovate, and to analyze and solve problems, is seen worldwide as crucial for adapting to the fast-changing global economy. But it is all part of a long-standing tension between the need for academic rigor and the need to foster creativity. The pendulum swing between the two has been particularly wide in the United States. During the 1990s, Americans lamented the lower academic standards here, especially when compared with nations such as Japan. The sense that American children were falling behind in the developed world — bolstered by international test results in which the United States ranked as mediocre, and given a sense of urgency by the numbers of disadvantaged and minority students who were leaving school without even basic skills — resulted in the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests and rigid benchmarks of progress. Now, even though academic performance among U.S. students is still lagging, many parents and educators are complaining that the push toward a standard curriculum and standardized tests is bleeding lessons of liveliness, and that schools do too little to foster creativity and analytical thinking. They're not entirely wrong. In keeping with the tests, which are mostly multiple choice, schools have assigned less writing and project work. Teachers have tried to make sure they go over every speck of material that might be on the tests, and because the approved curriculum tends toward the broad and shallow, there's a lot of short-answer information to cover but not much depth to explore.
Testing overkill earns state an 'F'
Standardized tests such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test long have been lightning rods for controversy. And recently, critics of "high-stakes testing" have signed onto resolutions decrying the reliance on tests that critics say often are biased and stressful as an accountability tool. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) long has been one of the loudest critics of standardized testing. Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, recently had an email conversation with Sentinel editorial writer Darryl Owens about the trouble with testing.
Q: The Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) recently approved a resolution opposing the current use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Surprised?
A: This grass-roots "revolt" reflects widespread concern that public schools spend too much time testing and not enough teaching. Independent experts, including a panel of the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, agree that an over-emphasis on high-stakes testing has not helped improve school quality.
Q: Is FSBA on to something?
A: Florida may well be the worst test-score misuser of any state in the country. The head of FSBA recently reported that many students spend 38 to 40 days in each school year preparing for and taking standardized exams. That's definitely overkill.
Q: John Winn, a former state education commissioner, pondered in a recent column, "If not FCAT, then what?" What is the alternative?
A: Winn's argument assumes that sticking with the status quo -- despite its demonstrated problems -- is the only way to move forward. Assessment reformers like FairTest have long offered better alternatives, including:
A supposed lack of better models is not the reason why politicians have not yet overhauled "No Child Left Behind." Rather, their faith in high-stakes exams blinds them to the evidence that their strategy is a failure.
Q: The 2012 "Diplomas Count" report found Florida's minorities outpaced the national graduation rate average. FCAT backers credit testing. Can't argue with success, right?
A: Die-hard supporters of the FCAT and test score misuse cherry-picked data to defend their policies. In fact, Florida remains a middle-of-the-pack state by most national measures of educational quality. For example, the state's scores on the college admissions ACT and SAT exams have actually declined in recent years.
Q: Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon noted in a recent guest column that we measure progress in everything from business to sports. Shouldn't there be a rigorous process to measure student learning?
A: No one is arguing against the use of regular measurement in education. The question is how best to assess students, teachers, schools and districts. The U.S. is the only economically advanced nation that relies heavily on multiple-choice exams. Other countries, such as Finland, primarily assess their students on real academic work such as essays, projects and activities. Ironically, because these nations do not focus on teaching to multiple-choice exams, they even score higher than U.S. students do on international tests.
Q: Where do you think this debate is heading now?
A: Assessment reform groups who initiated the national resolution will use the election campaign season to further close the gap between public opinion and public policy. Leaders of the testing-reform movement are realists. They are confident, however, that the increasing power of public opinion will ultimately lead policy-makers to roll back excessive high-stakes standardized exam mandates and adopt better forms of assessment.
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