School tests seen as teaching by fear

Learning: Tests can be standardized but childrens' minds can't be.

April 09, 2000|By Colman McCarthy

EXPERTS on education -- the greater their distance from the classrooms, the greater their expertise about teaching -- are in full huff about grade inflation, social promotions and low test scores. Nationally, presidential candidate George W. Bush -- the "C" student at Yale -- pledges to push states to require standardized tests in reading and math for all students in grades three through eight.

School districts would be ordered to publish the results, presumably without pictures of the kids who fail.

In Maryland, the most recent dithering occurred in Montgomery County where the Board of Education toils to create a uniform testing and grading system for high school students.

An "A" at one school should carry the same academic heft as an "A" at another. Variations in testing and grading standards mean that slackers at School X might be acing the final while at School Y some studious grinders may end up with B's and C's.

The proposed solution? Standardized tests and uniform grading. Fine, except that learning is subjective and measuring it objective. Tests can be standardized; minds can't.

Tests, grades and their next of academic kin, homework, represent teaching by fear. Scare kids into learning. Score well on tests, goes the meritocratic message, and pathways to success widen. Do poorly, and they narrow. Kowtow to a teacher's demands for test preparation, no matter how rote the drilling, and it will pay off.

Everyone can ask the kids not what was learned in the course, but "what'd ya get on the test?" And the illusion of excellence remains: the heavier a kid's book-crammed backpack on leaving school, the more the kid is learning.

Fear-based learning is described in Carol Rinzler's book, "Your Adolescent: An Owner's Manual."

Little Kimberly asks her high-achieving parents: "If they tell you in nursery school that you have to work hard so that you'll do well in kindergarten, and if they tell you in kindergarten that you have to work hard so you'll do well in high school, and if they tell you in high school that you'll have to work hard so you'll get into a good college, and they tell you in college that you have to work hard so you'll get into a good graduate school, what do they tell you in graduate school that you have to work hard for?"

Mom and Dad tell Kimberly: "To get a good job so you can make enough money to send your children to a good nursery school."

Fear-based learning works for a while -- until the course ends, when test-givers and graders can no longer intimidate. Quality teachers see students as combustibles: set students on fire with a passion for useful knowledge -- of whatever subject, from art to zoology -- and they will burn for a lifetime.

In desire-based learning, a moment comes when the receiver of knowledge thinks, I need this, it's important to my life. Desire-based learning begins in early childhood when two of life's most difficult skills are mastered on the testless and gradeless level of inner self-motivation.

In "Standardized Minds" (Perseus Books, 1999), Peter Sacks reports that a child in the Chicago school system must take some two dozen tests from the middle of the third grade to the end of the fourth. It begins even earlier with "the Baby Boards" or what Sacks calls "Babes in Testland" : preschool testing of recently undiapered toddlers whose parents heave them into the maw of the nation's brain-measuring machine.

Many 3-year-old applicants to elite nursery schools are being wait-listed, or rejected outright, because they tripped over life's first hurdle: the pre-K admissions examination.

"Of course," Sacks writes, "intelligence tests, used as a screening device to sort the gifted and ungifted and the talented from the merely ordinary, come with the requisite warnings from schools, psychologists, and educators to keep the tests in perspective and not let the results color perceptions about children. -- Despite all that sage advice, the intrinsic power of ratings, ranking and percentiles in American culture may well alter parent's perceptions of their own children -- particularly on tests of so-called intelligence, perceived to be so fundamental to a child's prospects in life."

Schools are peopled by two kinds of teachers: those who want power over students and those who seek power with them. The power-over set are mind-controllers who let students know that academic excellence demands a high price, with payments coming in the form of academic suffering: tough tests, rigid grading standards and heaps of homework.

Educators seeking power with their students de-emphasize all that. They go along with Robert Frost's free-form method of teaching. In his classes at Amherst College, Frost walked in the first day of each semester with no books, no syllabus, no reading lists, but only a frightening question for his students: What do you want to learn? No teacher had ever asked them that. Frost and his students took it from there.

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