Friday, April 17, 2015

Standardized Tests Ruin the Curiosity Required for Real Learning

We just finished reading Lord of the Flies, and we're doing some culminating work, which includes analyses of the sources of government legitimacy, causes of violence and warfare, and the lack of governance in our digital lives.

The book is outstanding--raising a variety of issues, offering a richness of ideas, and generally stimulating thoughtful analysis of our lives in society.  But when asking my 8th graders (pretty good students, pretty effective standardized test takers--we pass at about 80% every year) to make conceptual connections from the book to ideas like the difference between rational-legal and charismatic sources of legitimacy, they resist doing so.

I think the problem is that we've spent so many years training them to read to answer questions (about finding the main point, the author's purpose, etc., and do so just how the test writer expects) rather than find and do interesting things with what they read that their intellectual curiosity has not been very well nourished.

I think the idea behind the testing is that we're making sure students have the preliminary skills to gather and organize material so that they can move up to the interesting and engaging work with it.  The difficulty is that the skills practice stuff can become so dull as to weaken enthusiasm for doing the next level of more interesting work.

All of my 8th graders gleefully acknowledge that they've read a book and argued with a friend about something in it (a character, a behavioral decision, etc.), or watched the movie version of a book and argued over whether the movie "got it right."

Nobody ever goes home and argues over what they read in the standardized test material.  The reading is boring, and the activities connected to it aren't much better.

I try to explain to them that what I really want is for them to make the interesting connections among things, and show that to me...I'm interested, too.  But their first reaction is too often, "How long does it have to be?"
Where I want to encourage intellectual omnivores, I get minds accustomed to working toward uninteresting goals and getting there as expeditiously as possible--it's the destination, not the journey.

Standardized testing reinforces this in students not particularly inclined toward omnivorousness.  For those students who are so inclined, the problem is even more grave.  The testing process we're so enthralled with may actually beat their curiosity out of them by demanding they do mind-numbing tasks that discourage involvement with interesting material.

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