How test obsession hurts learning

This is one of the best pieces we’ve seen on the topic. From a paper presented at the International Conference on Redesigning Pedagogy, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, June 1, 2009.

David C. Berliner – America being a practical country, a land for the promotion of Yankee ingenuity and dominated by the interests of business, never was in awe of the liberal arts or the humanities. There never was a golden age in America in which the liberal arts and humanities flourished while the servile arts were looked down upon. In fact, for at least the first hundred years of widespread public schooling in the US, the practical was deemed appropriate to teach most middle-class white students and was considered even more desirable as the curriculum for the poor and minorities, were they afforded any education at all. The exception to this focus on the practical was for a small and select group of wealthy, white, male students who did get to study the liberal arts in upper high school grades and college.

Today may actually be worse for poor children in the US than at any time in the last half century. This is because the lower classes are being kept from the liberal arts and humanities curricula by design. Using the argument that we must get their test scores up, we in the US are designing curriculum for poor children, often poor children of color but certainly, numerically, for poor white children, that will keep them ignorant and provide them with vocational training, at best. Their chances of entrance to college and middle class lives are being diminished, and this is all being done under the banner of “closing the gap,” a laudable goal, but one that has produced educational policies with severe and negative side effects. . .

Data show that changes in the time allocated for teaching reading and mathematics in elementary schools were quite dramatic between 2002 and 2007. These are the years of the NCLB act and mandated high-stakes testing. The time allocated to reading has been increased, on average, over two and a third hours a week, while mathematics time has been increased, on average, about an hour and a half a week. What needs to be kept in mind when interpreting this table is that the “average” masks relevant information. It is likely that many school districts increased time in these subjects a great deal more than the average, because the average includes districts serving high-income children, who typically score well on the tests used to satisfy NCLB requirements. Those districts probably changed their time allocations very little. On the other hand those serving low-income students probably changed their time allocations a lot. . .

If reading and English language arts consists of too much phonics practice; too much drill and test preparation; too many worksheets for practicing reading skills; not enough writing to express complex thoughts; not enough reading for enjoyment; and not enough reading of academic material to increase vocabulary in order to aid comprehension; then the reading is more to foster the goal of basic literacy and not literacy for its pleasure, or for its value in exploring the arts, the sciences and the humanities. . .

Sadly, evidence exists to support the hypothesis that the increased time spent on reading and mathematics is not helping us make better readers and mathematicians.

A second look at reading achievement and the effects of greatly increased reading instruction on the performance of the various US states comes from the Educational Testing Service. What is obvious is that average scores are not increasing, and many states have actually done worse since the enactment of NCLB. . .

The evidence is that the schools with the poorest children, and therefore the schools with the greatest likelihood of being sanctioned under NCLB, are those where the reading curriculum in now often of the most basic type. While such a level of literacy might have been good enough at the beginning of the 20th century, it is hard at the beginning of the 21st century to defend the forms of instruction used and the kinds of literacy attained by the children in many of our poorest schools.

We now know that for many children the motive to engage in activities found pleasurable for their own sake is diminished when those same tasks are rewarded. This suggests that a significant number of poor and minority children who really do enjoy reading for pleasure and edification are much more likely to be turned off of reading because reading has become a task governed by extrinsic rewards. In many schools with the poorest students stars are awarded for rather trivial multiple-choice questions answered correctly about books just completed. . . Other schools have class parties for high numbers of books read collectively per unit of time. None of these approaches is wrong from a behaviorist theory, yet all of these short-term motivational strategies are likely to have a negative influence on continuing motivation to read. We don’t know this, of course, because we usually do not study the long-term effects of these programs. But there is good reason to believe that continuing motivation to read will suffer under some of these instructional programs.

There is another theory in our field that comes to mind when looking at these data. It is related to time and learning. I did some of that research myself. From all the research, and from the common sense that is found in the humblest of homes, we have been able to derive a sound educational law, namely, that the more time students spend studying in some area of the curriculum, the more likely they will have learned more in that area. Time and learning are believed to be, and are empirically found to be, causally related. But this principle of learning is directly challenged by the reading data we have. Significantly more time spent in reading is leading to less improvement on the high quality assessments of reading that are used, the NAEP tests. This suggests that students may be studying the wrong things, or that their motivation is being undermined, or both. This is not good.

What do we know about mathematics? . . . We see almost the same things we noted when looking at reading. The exception is eighth grade gains for Hispanics. All other cells show a pattern of higher gains before NCLB and the additional time that was allocated for mathematics instruction.

Actually, we learn from the 41 states for which there were complete data at the 8th grade that mathematics scores overall did go up quite a bit over time. Its just that in 24 of those states the gains were larger in the three years before NCLB than in the 4 years after NCLB. So NCLB seems to improve the gains in achievement in fewer than 50% of the states. And in about 10% of the states for which we have data NCLB has no discernable effects at all. So in mathematics, as was true in reading, NCLB does not seem a sensible social policy.

While rarely taught as well as the experts would like it to be taught, mathematics can be even more boring and inadequately taught than ever before under the threat of sanctions. Mathematics, can [be] a subject that is a rich source of discourse and debate, of conjecture and the testing of ideas, and even an important contributor to democratic practices when taught correctly. But like reading it can be turned into a drill oriented, teacher dominated subject in which the increased time results in increased boredom and dislike of the subject.

Moreover, in a recent analysis by Jaekyung Lee, in RER, he pointed out that the achievement gap between wealthier and poorer students has not been closing at all on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the best audit test America has. This all suggests that something is quite wrong. Increases in allocated time ought to result in increased learning. But if the increased time for learning reading and learning mathematics results in a less interesting curriculum for teachers to teach, and for students to learn, then the results we are getting are actually quite sensible, though certainly quite disheartening. . .

I am struck, as always, by Dewey’s prescience and our failure to take him seriously: he said:

“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.”

Other odd data about contemporary curriculum exist. For example, England has also tried to reform its schools through accountability plans that are heavily test oriented. And it seems to have problems similar to the US. In fact, for the first time since IQ tracking was started, in which an upward trend has been the norm for decades, IQs appear to be declining quite dramatically in UK middle grades. And this has occurred in a relatively short amount of time, according to James Flynn, who gave us the Flynn effect and monitors these trends worldwide. In truth, no one currently has a good explanation for this downward trend. But at least one reason given is that the UK has become a test-oriented culture and this has stunted the . . .

Galton and McBeath surveyed primary teachers in England. Teachers in their study regret that time pressures no longer allow them to engage in informal conversations with individual children during lessons, or to allow pupils, at certain times, to pursue their own ideas and interests as part of topic and project work. The British data tell us that since the seventies this time has decreased by nearly 50%. Yet, teachers regarded exchanges of that kind as highly rewarding and motivating because they greatly enhanced the teacher-child relationship and provided what some classroom practitioners described as ‘magic moments.’

Galton and McBeath quote teachers. For example, a female with 23 years experience says: “Too often the subjects like art, and history and geography and the subjects that children really enjoy, and P.E., are squeezed out and those children that are not academic are not getting a chance to shine. We are actually turning them off education rather than actually encouraging them to want to improve the things that they are good at because we’re not actually finding out what they’re good at any more.”

Galton and McBeath report that many teachers noted the creative subjects were being squeezed out, with the consequence that there were fewer opportunities for children to be good at something, to succeed or to excel, and the teachers knew that this was not good for the children and it made classroom management all that more difficult. The emphasis on the core subjects, with increased focus on content, simply meant that there was less space in the school day for less structured activities, though it was in those kinds of activities that some non-academic children excelled.

The British and US experience is exactly what Hong and Youngs report happened to curriculum in their study of Chicago and Texas, as that district and that state responded to high-stakes testing. In Chicago the researchers found that high-stakes testing seemed to narrow the curriculum and make it harder for students to acquire higher-order thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills. In Texas, it was found that schooling changed in ways that emphasized rote learning, not broad intellectual skills. Lipman also studied the Chicago schools and reports that the accountability program insured that the more affluent students in Chicago received a much richer and more intellectually challenging curriculum than did the poor children in Chicago. Poor minority children, in particular, were required to memorize fragmented facts and information, and they were constantly taught simple test-taking techniques. . .

Science, a field that probably will be even more important in the 21st century than in the 19th and 20th centuries, is down, on average, over an hour a week as well. Although science is now one of the areas tested under the NCLB law, and is a privileged curriculum area, scores on the science tests do not count toward AYP. Thus, lack of progress in science, and/or low performance on science tests, can safely be ignored by schools and districts since no sanctions attach to the test. Science, like social studies has been robbed of minutes to expand time for reading and mathematics. Thus curriculum that might help insure American economic competitiveness in the future, and surely will contribute to intelligent citizenship in our science- and technology-rich future, has been sacrificed.. . .

Time for physical education is down, despite the fact that our youth are more sedentary than they should be, are quite overweight, and Type 2 diabetes is becoming more common. It is easy to argue that physical education is more important today than ever before, and it is acknowledged as one of the most important ways to keep medical costs down as we slowly move to universal medical coverage. Yet physical education is sacrificed for the possibility of a few more points on state tests that have to rise continuously to satisfy the requirements of NCLB.

Lunch is obviously wasted time for those who feel the pressure of testing under NCLB. Anecdotally, therefore, it was not surprising that a teacher at a Massachusetts district reported her concern that lunch at her elementary school was less than 15 minutes on many days “so that more time could be put in on the rigorous curriculum areas.” “Rigorous curriculum areas” is code, meaning the areas that are tested. Anything else (social studies, history, government, art, music, physical education) has been defined in her school as inherently a non-rigorous subject. The school she reported on had actually abandoned traditional luncheon meals and started serving finger food-wraps and chicken nuggets-to get the students in and out of the cafeteria faster.

Nationally, recess was found to be down, on average, about an hour a week. We even discovered, in Maryland, that naps for preschoolers and kindergartners were forbidden by one county school superintendent.

Art and music, nationally, are down an average of an hour a week. This is particularly troublesome because the nation never spent a lot of time in these subjects. . . .

[A] California study makes clear that the arts are rationed: They are taught primarily to the wealthy and not the poor.

Wealthier students, if they are lucky, will be exposed to a wider range of the arts and humanities in their high schools because the breadth of the curriculum offerings in the high achieving schools has not needed to be cut back. Students in these schools are usually passing their state tests, their schools usually make adequate yearly progress, and their parents have the political power and resources to maintain a broader curriculum. These wealthier students, even were they to miss some exposure to the arts and humanities in the public schools, have parents who pay to provide them with extra curriculum activities (music lessons, drama club, sports), and they are much more likely to encounter the arts and humanities in their colleges. But poorer public school students may not be exposed to the ways of thinking embedded in the arts and humanities at all, and since their college attendance rates are low and getting lower at the most prestigious institutions of higher education, poorer students may never get adequate education in the arts and humanities.

The ability for students to learn in areas that are of interest to them seems almost unlimited, as seen in their commitment to their hobbies and to acquiring skills in video games. But in this era of high-stakes testing students cannot be allowed time in school to follow their interests. The standards define what students should know at different grade levels, and deviation from that plan is considered dangerous because it might result in missing some items on the states high-stakes accountability test. Of course schools never allowed much time for individualized work, but now even the teachers that made some use of problem-based or project-based leaning, forms of instruction that could ignite students’ interests through a curriculum more personally tailored for an individual, are not allowed to do so. . .

Rothstein, Jacobson and Wider surveyed school administrators, school board members and the general public to see if they prized similar goals for our schools. Remarkably, all three groups performed almost identically, indicating great consistency in contemporary American beliefs about the goals of schooling. Not surprisingly the highest ratings were to the basic skills. But not far behind “basic skills” in the ratings of importance of particular curriculum goals, was the goal of critical thinking. Yet given the high-stakes testing environment, with predominantly decontextualized multiple-choice measures used to assess what has been learned, there appears to be no place in the curriculum to teach, and no way to assess, critical thinking. Thus this major curricula goal for American education, perhaps never taught well, is made even less likely to be included in the school curriculum. This is even more of a problem since the pundits all say critical thinking is a necessary 21st century skill. While we may not know how to teach critical thinking well, we probably do know how not to teach critical thinking well, and apparently have designed just such a system.

Nickerson offered a set of ideas for thinking about the behavior and characteristics that a critical thinker would display. He would say that the woman or man displaying critical thinking skills would:

– use evidence skillfully and impartially;

– organize thoughts and articulate them concisely and coherently;

– distinguish between logically valid and invalid inferences;

– suspend judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision;

– understand the difference between reasoning and rationalizing;

– attempt to anticipate the probable consequences of alternative actions; – understand the idea of degrees of belief;

– see similarities and analogies that are not superficially apparent;

– learn independently and have an abiding interest in doing so;

– apply problem-solving techniques in domains other than those in which they were learned;

– structure informally represented problems in such a way that formal techniques, such as mathematics, can be used to solve them;

– strip a verbal argument of irrelevancies and phrase it in its essential terms;

– habitually question one’s own views and attempt to understand both the assumptions that are critical to those views and the implications of the views;

– be sensitive to the difference between the validity of a belief and the intensity with which it is held;

– be aware of the fact that one’s understanding is always limited, often much more so than would be apparent to one with a non-inquiring attitude;

– recognize the fallibility of one’s own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions, and the danger of weighting evidence according to personal preferences.

The list is certainly daunting, but some versions of this is what the public wants from our schools, and so we let the public down by going along with NCLB and not working on these issues. . .

A substantial set of studies informs us about how we can change things using precisely the same social psychological mechanisms that have messed up the system in the first place. If we could develop assessment items that were worth teaching to we might use the rational responses of teachers to high-stakes testing to affect instruction in more desirable ways. . .

If we cared to, in social studies or history, we might assess understanding of the Civil War by asking questions taping:

Analytic skills: Compare and contrast the Civil War and the American Revolution.

Creativity: What might the United States be like today if the Civil War had not taken place?

Practical intelligence: How has the Civil War affected, even indirectly, the kinds of rights that people have today?

Wisdom:: Are wars ever justified?

If we cared to, in English, we might assess understanding of a novel like Tom Sawyer by asking questions taping:

Analytic skills: How was the childhood of Tom Sawyer similar to and different from your own childhood?

Creativity: Write an alternative ending to the story.

Practical intelligence: What techniques did Tom Sawyer use to persuade his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence?

Wisdom: Is it ever justified to use such techniques of persuasion to make people do things they do not really want to do?

If we cared to, in science we might ask the following questions to tap:

Analytic skills: What is the evidence that global warming is taking place?

Creativity: What do you think the world will be like in 100 years if global warming continues at its present pace?

Practical intelligence: What can you, personally, do to slow the effects of global warming?

Wisdom: What responsibility do we have to future generations to act on global warming now, before it gets worse?

If we cared to, in mathematics we might ask the following questions to tap:

Analytic skills: What is the interest after 6 months on a loan of $4,000.00 at 4% interest?

Creativity: Design a mathematical problem for a 10 year old involving interest on a loan.

Practical intelligence: How would you invest $4,000.00 to maximize your rate of return without risking more than 10% of the principal?

Wisdom: Why do states set maximum rates of interest that lenders can charge, and should they do so?. . .

The same politicians and business persons that want high-stakes testing to be the cornerstone of a school accountability system also want 21st century skills developed. They do not yet understand that they cannot have both at the same time. These are incompatible goals. . .

It seems to me that all but the most privileged students come into public schools where the pedagogy may actually be closer to that of the 19th rather than the 21st century. In schools for the poor, Dickens’s wonderfully written caricature of a teacher, Mr. Gradgrind, still lives. Gradgrind said:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. . . . “

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: