Thursday, May 3, 2012

Think About Measuring Standards of Knowledge

I recently read an interesting article called "The SAT and the Assault on Literature" by David Ruenzel. The author--both a parent and a teacher--opines that, while preparing for the SAT, students stop reading books that are unrelated to schoolwork and unrelated to studying for the exam. Essentially, they stop reading for pleasure. His assertion is backed up with his experience. Without agreeing or disagreeing, I might take it a step further: Perhaps it's the whole atmosphere of the American education system--which has become what I would call a "testing nation"--that is creating the assault on literature (and reading and writing).

I took the SAT because I had to. I didn't know--and didn't really care--what it was supposed to say about me or about my intelligence. In the long run, it probably didn't say much; and whatever it did/didn't say doesn't matter anymore anyway (if it ever did). In high school, I knew kids who studied for the SAT, and I knew kids who fretted about it. But I didn't do either. At least, I don't remember studying for it. Perhaps I did the weekend before or, half-heartedly, for the month before, but I don't remember it being a focal point in my life. I know I never attended any SAT prep courses. But, when all was said and done, I did well on it. A decent score. Nothing out-of-this-world-great, but I did better than several of the people I knew who had taken the prep courses and/or studied intensely for months. So, does that measure my knowledge? My problem-solving skills? My aptitude? Or, does it just say that I was lazy and could have done really well had I put any effort into it? Does it take into account that I was in mostly all honors courses, spending hours a night on homework, juggling several extracurricular activities--drama, band, and soccer--and that, for me, studying for another test seemed pretty pointless at the time?

If you study just to take a test, what are you really learning? This is how I feel about the standardized tests that many teachers are required to teach to. "Teaching to the test" does not--in a lot of cases--help the student learn how to think critically or read closely. It is my understanding, though, that the SAT now has an essay component to it. This could be progress; I don't know enough about what the essay part entails to form an opinion, but certainly it measures at least a little more than how well you can fill in a little bubble with your #2 pencil. Because, the thing is, essays are a lot harder to study for: You really have to know the most cases. (I actually B.S.'d my way through a number of essay exams in high school, getting "A"s and "B"s when, in reality, I had very little idea of what I was talking about. But perhaps writing B.S. skillfully is a measure of aptitude, too?)

Generally speaking, though, essays require, at the very least, the ability to be able to form words, sentences, and thoughts. And, to me, being able to communicate effectively (and correctly) is crucial to a person's success (whether the rest of society thinks so or not).

The one test I did care very much about in high school was the AP English exam my senior year. David Ruenzel asserted in his article that the SAT ruins literature for students? Well, our small class (6 or 8 of us) spent the year preparing for the AP exam by dissecting every inch of every piece of literature we read. It didn't kill literature for me; on the contrary, it made me appreciate it even more. (I'm not sure, though, if anyone else who was in the class would agree with me, so Ruenzel might have a point.) We had to read carefully and with understanding, and we had to think critically about what we read. We had to be able to carry over everything we'd studied all year--all those poems, all those stories, all those novels--to the exam and be able to write coherent essays, backing up every thesis statement with proof and, then, backing up our proof with proof.

To me, there's a big difference between an essay exam and a filling-in-a-bubble test. When you're required to take information and pose it into an essay, you need to have some grasp--no matter how weak--of the subject matter (even if all you're going to do is B.S. your way through it). I remember what I learned in my AP class, and perhaps I never want to read The Great Gatsby again (including both high school and college, I had to read it for three different classes), but I did very well on the AP exam; furthermore, very few college (including grad school) classes I've taken have ever matched that class in difficulty.

I don't have any least, not any that can be neatly filled in with a #2 pencil. I can assert that essay exams are better than the standard standardized tests, and I'm sure I could find enough articles and books to back up my claim. But, ultimately, what does it mean?

We still have students graduating from high school who can barely read and write. What they need is not necessarily a way to be tested and measured; what they need is a way to be taught. Does it really matter where we rank, how we compare to other students, teachers, schools? Yes, I'm sure it does, but maybe it shouldn't be the focus. And...if a student fills in all the bubbles of a standardized test correctly but cannot write an essay, how is that student's aptitude measured?

Yes, there needs to be a way to assess students. But should the focus be on what they know or on what they don't know?

If you have any further interest in this subject, I'd recommend checking out Rethinking Schools' blog.


  1. i think a large problem with the education system in the U.S. (at least for grades 12 and under) is that we do not teach how to think, only what we should learn. I think critical thinking should be taken on as early as possible. Education should not be just about memorization (which is the majority of our education). It should be about thinking and about not only figuring things out, but wanting to do so. And stale memorization leaves one apt to forget things they prepare for a test shortly afterward.

    When i was training to be a forest ranger, we studied constitutional law a lot. We had two major exams, the first of which I studied my arse off for and received an 88%. However on the second, more intensive exam, I came up with a novel thought. I knew everything already. I lived that course for months--it was all I did. So while my fellow classmates hit the books, I relaxed, drank a glass of iced tea and went to bed early. I received a 96% on the final.

    Perhaps that is not so much a lesson to not study, but rather that there is more than one technique to preparing for a test. While I believe that this can be unique, depending on the individual, I think that teaching critical thought would allow one to think outside the box and figure these things on their own.

    There is no cookie-cutter process for the complexities of human thought. Neither is there a cookie-cutter way to train it.