Monday, January 16, 2012

Shooting skeet was excellent practice. It taught them to shoot skeet."*

In today's Times, Michael Winerip spotlights an important limitation to a widely publicized longitudinal study that found that elementary school teachers who significantly raise students' test scores have a positive impact on their long-term prospects.Winerip notes that the testing in question took place before the era of "high-stakes testing," in which teachers are under relentless pressure to teach to the test and curricula are bent to that end.  Winerip's caveat:
Whether those results are applicable to our post-2004 high-stakes world, we cannot tell. It may well be that teachers under pressure to raise their students’ scores through extensive test preparation will get inflated results that do not carry over positively to adulthood.
There's a kind of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work: if you teach to the test, the test results have a different import. Winerip concludes with a personal anecdote that I can bookend with my later experience as a parent:


I suspect that Mr. Noyes, my 11th grade Advance Placement American history teacher from 40 years ago, had a low value-added rating. As I recall, no one in our class got a top score of 5; I got a 3. There was no prepared curriculum aligned with the test: Mr. Noyes built the lessons. On any given topic, he would assign us several books that viewed history through different lenses — economics, politics, personality.

I have long ago forgotten the content of those lessons, but Mr. Noyes instilled in us something far more important: the understanding that history does not come from one book. While that idea has served me for a lifetime, I do not believe it is quantifiable.
AP courses now are completely keyed to the tests -- at least in humanities, in the district I now live in, or at least in my perception of my sons' experience. When my younger son, now 21, was in AP history five or six years ago, I chanced to read on-screen a little screed he'd written that read like a kind of precis of  A People's History of the United States: a sad tale of economic exploitation, racial oppression and faux democracy, in a lightning tour through events and evolutions I knew that he knew little about.  I protested to him that it was pretty unbalanced, unsupported, something to that effect.  He retorted that he could guarantee me that he'd get an A: what he was supposed to do was "take a strong point of view." And that pretty much summed up the course. There were few or no books assigned; the reading was mainly xeroxed snippets. The students did no research to speak of: in frequent short writings, they responded to the snippets. They were trained to write, not think; to sound knowledgeable, not to learn in depth.

Perhaps these illustrations are a bit too symmetric. Winerip's tale is incomplete, in that he doesn't tell us what kind of school district he was in. One might suspect, given his career path, that it was reasonably affluent; in that case, why did a whole class get through an AP course with no one scoring a 5 on the test?  As for my son, he was a high school cynic, albeit a verbally facile one; others in his humanities classes may have dug deeper.  But still, I suspect that the two experience illustrate the basic trend line: toward teaching to the test, and educational ADD.

* Title is a memory-paraphrase from Catch-22.

2 comments:

  1. It sounds like modern AP classes are teaching kids how to be good bloggers!

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  2. The crap about taking a strong point of view (devoid of strong factual support and basic decency) echoes CNN's response to Dana Loesch's hideous defense of the urinating Marines: "CNN contributors are commentators who express a wide range of viewpoints—on and off of CNN—that often provoke strong agreement or disagreement." I wish they'd just have their contributors broadcast in the nude instead.

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