It’s not just the tests that are messed up

Via the Washington Post, a member of the school board, who deigned to take a standardized test prescribed for his 10th graders, vents about its absurd pointlessness:

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…

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…

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?

The school board member is on the right track, but he needs to take it a little further. Something is wrong, and new tests won’t fix it.

Whether our tests address relevant topics or not, they’d still be pointless. And it’s not just the tests; it’s the entire classroom environment.

Asking someone to answer multiple choice questions about how to ride a bicycle doesn’t produce a particularly useful measure of one’s ability to ride a bicycle. Nor does one learn to ride by having a group discussion about bicycles. Even observing people biking around isn’t really all that helpful. This is the fundamental flaw with school, and the reason why it carries the multitudes to adulthood with a knowledge of plenty of facts, but no useful skills.

I’m reminded of Ivan Illich:

Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all nonprofessional activity is rendered suspect. In school we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.

Neither new tests nor a different classroom model will solve the problem; the solution is to let children learn by doing. Let them build. Let them program. Let them sell. Let them repair. Let them create. Get them out of the fantasy land as soon as possible and let them do all these things in the real world.

Tacitus was right: “Experience teaches.”

Relatedly, here’s a chart of our culture’s education spending trend. How are you feeling about our ROI?

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