Sunday, October 12, 2008

This is a test

I love crossword puzzles. The challenge of finding answers is rewarding to me. I especially love crossword-puzzles-by-committee, where two or three or five brains are working together to fill in all those little blanks. Frank, on the other hand, hates crossword puzzles, by committee or otherwise, although he will occasionally let me pick his encyclopedia brain when I'm stumped.

I think we can all can accept the reality I've just described: I enjoy crossword puzzles, Frank does not. Who cares? After all, nobody's life depends on a crossword puzzle, so it doesn't really matter if either one of us ever completes one.

Replace "crossword puzzle" with "test," though, and "Frank" and "I" with the names of a couple of kids, and you get another reaction. Suddenly that paragraph up there is rife with problems. It's no longer a matter of personal preference but of weighty issues like "career" and "future" and "consequences." Even the fact that I like to collaborate (a skill that is highly valued by employers!) becomes a problem.

So, we conducted an interesting little experiment last summer. It was unintentional; we were just being good little compliant homeschoolers by completing our annual standardized tests.

(Background: Unschoolers are subject to the random homeschool laws of their particular state, which range from Texas' "do what you want" to New York's "tell us every last thing you are doing and it had better be good enough." Washington regulates homeschooling, but the requirements are pretty simple: (1) file an annual declaration of intent to homeschool, (2) keep attendance records, (3) cover each of the required subject-matter areas, and (4) test or obtain a teacher's assessment each year. The parents keep all records (including test or assessment results), there is no administrative review, and it's not a big deal to comply each year.)

Our daughters kind of enjoy taking the tests. We test at home, so it's relaxed and flexible. For us, the tests are a strewing device and nothing more. The girls are allowed to ask questions, look things up on the Internet, talk to each other, rest whenever they want, and so on. For those reasons, or maybe just because, they enjoy the challenge. When they stop enjoying it, they make pretty patterns with the remaining dots on their answer sheets and move on to other things.

With Chloe's school-induced hatred of math, there were a couple of years where her enjoyment of the Math Computation section ended after about 2 minutes. But this year, she found it fascinating. I think the rules for the section allowed her 35 minutes, but we spent an hour going through it together, working problems (she did her own) and talking about what they were testing for and why. She was having fun and would have kept going, but I encouraged her to stop since we were both getting tired and she had more than done her time. She made a pattern in the remaining dots (about a fourth of the section, I think) and called it a day.

Chloe's score on that section is three grade levels above where she's "supposed" to be.

So, what does this tell me about Chloe? Not a damned thing. But it tells me quite a bit about schooling and test results.

The suppositions about this test include:
1. The test asks questions that represent the key skills for the student's grade level.
2. If the student cannot answer enough questions correctly in the time allotted, he or she has not learned the key skills.

Right? We must assume those things are true. Otherwise, what is the point of the test?

But the only conclusion I can draw from those "facts" and the scores that schooled kids are achieving and that Chloe the unschooler achieved is this: Our schools are failing utterly to teach. What schooled kids can do on this math test in an unfriendly 35 minutes, after all those years of school, is comparable to what my third-grade dropout can do on this math test in a friendly hour.

So what exactly is Chloe supposed to have missed?

And, perhaps more interestingly, what have all those other kids missed by being in school?

What if...
  • our schools and our government cared more about learning than the proof of learning?
  • we stopped assuming there are key skills for any grade level?

  • we stopped assuming that all kids test equally well?

  • we stopped assuming that all people should work at the same pace?

  • we stopped assuming that the average result produced by a broken system is a standard to strive for?
Why is all of this so hard to imagine?


dharmamama said...

Ohhh, Ronnie! It *just* hit me, maybe two years ago, that MOST tests are unnecessary. I mean, when else, in your life, are you going to be separated from everyone you know, everyone else on Earth for that matter, every resource out there, and have to rely on only your memory? When? When does that happen? It's such a crazy, crazy system.

For some careers, I can see a demonstration of knowledge vital: brain surgery, for example. I wouldn't want a brain surgeon flipping through a text to find the right answer during surgery. But for most people? Not. Necessary.

I am percolating a BIG article about the true cost of schools - and I'm not even including testing! Just other aspects of school. I wish I had time to just sit and marinate in my thoughts, then write, but stuff keeps coming up instead, like my family and dog and meals and stuff. It'll come when it comes.

Zenmomma said...

This is wonderful Ronnie! Maybe it's the beginnings of a presentation????

Linda said...

Excellent post, Ronnie.

My kids have never had formal math lessons. You know, the usual, math with baking and playing poker. ;) Both Jake and Noah are good at math (the girls haven't started,) but Noah especially seems to enjoy it. Meaning that he'll ask me to give him a math problem occasionally, which is probably just a tiny fraction of brain time that schooled kids *supposedly* spend on math. Recently I brought him home a math workbook, and of all the things he had to do in the house, including tv and video games, he choose to do that. For hours. Obviously, his brain is inclined toward that sort of thing -- *he* is the person who needs to be doing it, not my other three who will do exactly as they need to in life with their poker-level skills. But he is also a very sensitive person, so I have to wonder if he *would* be doing it if he'd been *made* to, not in his own time (he's "late" according to state standards,) not according to his brain's current level of interest. I kind of seriously doubt it. Some kids get hit with the stuff exactly when they are ready and they go on to succeed with it. How many are we losing? Yet the government wants *more* pushing in math and science, not less. Bah.

As to testing, I've been absolutely opposed to it, but you've given me a new perspective on it, which will come in handy if we ever have to do it. Thank you.

Frank said...

Crossword puzzles. Ick! And sudoku. Dear, sweet gods of the universe, sudoku. Ack! Did you know that some people do sudoku and think that therefore they're "good at math?"

Well, never mind. Forget I said it. Let's not go there.

Sudoku... (shudder!) Where's that hot poker? I wanna shove it in my eye.

meredith said...

The sad, scary part is how difficult it is to get ideas like this accepted by parents - not teachers, parents. Open classrooms, multi-age classrooms and other such successful programs crashed and burned on parental disapproval. Parents want a simple standard of measure, and testing is that, even though it measures nothing whatsoever of value.

Ronnie said...

Meredith - So sorry it took so long to get your comment approved. I didn't get a notification.

Yes, people always want easy answers, don't they. Maybe it's a relic of schooling. :-)