Earlier this week I saw a news clip about new standardized tests that are coming to New York. I wasn’t paying close enough attention to tell you how these tests are different from earlier tests or what the pundits had to say, but it got my thinking about the standardized tests I took in high school. I distinctly remember a group of questions referring to drawings of analog clocks. Questions like, “If John’s train leaves at 11:20 and and takes two hours to reach its destination, which clock shows what time it will arrive?” I’m not sure what’s worse: that being able to correctly answer meant my math skills were up to par or that there were students in New Jersey who wouldn’t be able to answer the question. The most talked about question after the test came from the science section: “Which of the following is not a vegetable?” I don’t remember what the multiple choice answers were, but I think one of them was golden retriever.
The MSNBC ad featuring Melissa Harris-Perry again made me think about my public school education and those standardized tests.
Harris-Perry wants to invest more in public education because children belong to their communities. It’s a nice sentiment, but where does it get us? She arrogantly suggests that the community (by which I assume she means the public education system) knows what’s best for children. We should put our kids, and our tax dollars, in their hands and trust them.
My fellow high school students and I were guinea pigs for new standardized tests (Thank you, No Child Left Behind!) that focused on writing skills more than past tests had. Our teachers spent a lot of time preparing us for the timed essays we would have to write. The prep involved little actual writing and consisted of grading rubrics and examples of high- and low-scoring essays. We were taught exactly how to structure an essay so that grading officials would give us high scores. Everyone learned to write essentially the same essay, in the same writing style, no matter what the question. Thinking for yourself wasn’t an option. If this is what the public school system has come up with, I don’t think any more investment is going to help.
It wasn’t only in the standardized test realm that thinking for yourself was discouraged. When writing research papers, teachers dictated what sources we used. Typically these sources were books selected by the teacher and school librarian before the paper was assigned. We were taught that digital sources were unreliable and usually allowed to use only one. Essentially we learned that printed books were infallible, while the internet was full of lies and couldn’t be trusted. Rather than allowing us to learn that we should be skeptical of all sources, we were given the material to write the exact papers that teachers wanted to read. Papers that wouldn’t require them to learn any new skills, like Google, to grade.
The public school system that I grew up in didn’t allow for much individual, critical thinking. I imagine Harris-Perry’s community, built on the “collective notion that ‘these are our children,'” wouldn’t either.