On testing and education

http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2005/03/09/for_sat_takers_a_new_test/

one the one hand I am glad more emphasis is being put on writing and if this gets more teachers to take writing seriously that would be a good thing. However, the article itself points out many of my reservations: many teachers will be tempted to gear all their teaching toward the test and will ignore other necessary writing skills like revision, research, really the idea of writing as a process. Students will come to college no more prepared to write a five page essay than they are now.
Nor am I sure that the type of writing the test requires is a good indicator of a student’s writing abliity or their future academic performance. Many good writers, myself included, would be hard pressed to make anything good out of such dreary topics in twenty-five mintues.
I think the teacher mentioned last had the right idea: continue to teach good writing skills and students should be able to handle the problem. That will work for most students. But there are some who cannot perform well under pressure. Is this test a realisitic expectation and does it accurately reflect the kinds of writing students will be required to perform in college? Certainly there are plenty of essay tests and students will be required to think and plan quickly. But they are very different in that they refer to a specific body of knowledge, not a generic idea. The fact is a test like the SAT can’t really replicate the form or the function of a good essay test which required students to synthesize knowledge, to make connections between various ideas and sources, and to come to conclusions—all within a specialized discipline.

If high school teachers truly want to prepare students for college and to foster analytical and synthetic thinking skills, then they should assign a combination of longer discursive essays and research papers as well as in-class tests. Prepping students for the kind of questions they’ll find on the SAT is silly and pointless.

I am skeptical that any testing no matter how sophisticated can solve our country’s educational crisis. And I do believe we are in crisis. We need real teachers who are not afraid to challenge the prejudices against learning that pervade our society.  I was just reading an essay by Flannery O’Connor, “Fiction is a Subject with a History,” in which she states that, “Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning… “
We avoid subjects that students object to as being “boring” we try to cater to their tastes instead of cultivating their tastes… as O’Connor says, “His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” If we are a nation that is functionally illiterate it is because teachers have failed in this primary task of cultivating taste. We have become entertainers instead of educators.
And I accuse myself as well. It is all too easy to fall into the trap, or as O’Connor puts it, be possessed by the demon: “The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can only be cast out by fasting and prayer.”

“The fact that these works [modern fiction] do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time and has no perspective whatever from which to view them… many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when that seemed necessary or unavoidable.”

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