Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In one ear and out, on the test

    "Our children," wrote Marshall McLuhan decades before Facebook and Twitter, "are engaged in extraordinarily hard work, and that work is growing up — because to grow up in a modern electronic environment is a fantastically complex and difficult job."

    "Pshaw," will come the auto-rejoinder. "Their lives are too easy — and nothing the smooth side of a ruler on the backside wouldn't remedy."

    McLuhan would have admitted that growing up at any time has been hard work, whether in Dust Bowl days or those after the Twin Towers became dust.

    This brings up something that should give pause to all those who have spent great emotional energy, and in many cases political capital and tax dollars, making school children's lives more challenging: 

     Upon the death of Osama bin Laden, several press reports featured the reactions of America's school children. The prevailing theme was that though all knew he was the bad guy the United States was pursuing, the general narrative of the "war on terror" and the allegations that sent hundreds of thousands to war post 9/11, was a blank.

     What they knew about these events they got from marginally informed parents, uninformed peers and flag-pin-adorned cable TV barkers — the history equivalent of learning about sex in the locker room.

     Yet routinely these students were being told in history class to understand key facts related to the War of 1812. (It would be on the test.)

     Or, class, you need to know the name of the engineer who laid out the streets of Washington, D.C.: Pierre Charles L'Enfant. (Because, it would be on the test.)

     For those who give only cursory attention to what passes for "school reform," get to know this term: criterion-based testing.

    This is the standardized testing modeled in the 1980s under which the state came up with a template of content all students must master. It spawned today's suffocating school accountability laws, which were the underpinnings of No Child Left Behind. Criterion-based testing is different from norm-referenced tests like the SAT or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The latter expect that generous portions of students tested won't know all the answers.

     Norm-referenced tests challenge everyone. With criterion-based tests, everyone is supposed to learn the very same things dictated by the state. Otherwise, well, someone is getting left behind.

    Well, they get left behind, and the first ones to lag are teachers — not because they are lazy and incompetent, but a clock has only so many ticks on it. Whatever the tested content, teachers increasingly are overmatched relative to all the content states require they teach. They play a frantic game of catch-up, with the children getting increasingly cursory educations.

    It comes into play in math, where students must be doing college-level algebra in high school and therefore are being pointed in that direction from grade school.

    Do some students need more time on basic math to really "get it"? No time. So, though they may squeak by, passing the state test, they haven't come close to mastering math. But they passed.

     In no area is this trend more pronounced than history, which, in case you haven't noticed, keeps getting made every day. Which history is more relevant to the children in today's classrooms, the last 10 years of war, debt, progress and regress, or some decade before their great-great grandfathers weren't even twinkles in their great-great-great grandmothers' eyes?

    No question: Every student should understand the birth of this nation, key social movements, the Civil War and its collateral changes like Reconstruction. But a lot of what is attempted, under state mandate, is a hopeless chronological quest that cannot be done with any hope of relevance sinking in.

    This is the kind of education we've bought under "accountability."

    The next time children seem flummoxed about history, ask yourself who is to blame: them, their teachers, or those of us who thought more tests would make them smarter. What our students need is not more state-mandated content but more context.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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