This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

Being Wrong

I remember in fifth grade getting one of my first interpretive questions on a reading quiz. The question started with the wonderful words “why do you think…?” In my mind at the time, I felt that there was no possible wrong answer. My thoughts were my own and could be anything. Turned out I was wrong. Even though the question asked what I thought, it was just trying to figure out if I thought what the teacher wanted me to think.

Playing the Game Not to Lose

Such is the eternal struggle students have with tests, the struggle to avoid the wrong answer. “Learning to play the game,” as my mother used to call it, figuring out what your teacher wants to hear. It was a game I was bad at and didn’t want to play because I felt it was some kind of violation of my fifth-grade ethics (or it could have been a growing defiance to authority brought on by my relationship with my dad, but are you my shrink? I didn’t think so).

I did the majority of my schooling before the infamous NCLB, when the idea of learning to play the game became federal policy. I’ve spoken about high stakes testing before, but I think what needs to be brought up is the cost it has on the very trait it hopes to foster, innovation.

Low Scores for Testing

There is a long tradition of trying to quantify intelligence in education, and a tradition of trying to determine what is intelligence. Early IQ tests tended to have a problem of embodying cultural bias. Questions about David Copperfield and the difference between a violin and a viola certainly seemed common knowledge to the people making the tests. (Given a choice between ignorance and malice I err towards ignorance. I’m optimistic I guess.) Now we have standardized tests to determine whether students meet a level of intelligence and education mandated by the federal government.

It isn’t even the teachers that kids need to appease with their answers any longer; it’s the government’s inadequate metrics. Teachers teach to the test, and students learn to pass the tests. So where do we learn to innovate? Where do we learn to take chances and try new ideas? You don’t need dynamic or lateral thinking to answer A, B, C, or D. Teachers need to create a place for students to take chances and explore while preparing them for tests where creativity doesn’t count for anything.

In order to compete in the world economy we supposedly need to be a country that innovates, but our schools are not encouraged to teach students to take risks and give them a chance to learn from mistakes.  So how can students and teachers foster innovation? When did innovation and risk become an obstacle to scholastic success?

It has to do with the primary fallacy of standardized testing. Intelligence is not uniform. Sadly standardized testing is big business and you’d be hard pressed to say to the person who scored high on a test that the test doesn’t accurately gauge intelligence. So we march onward towards a nation of good test takers.

Are these just the words of a bad test taker? Is there a role for testing or does it just crush creativity? Do these questions have a wrong answer?

Donny got a BA in English, which he thought meant badass, but then he got to the real world. Now he realizes it means bitter academic. Donny did a stint in grad school with a focus on education, which made him angry enough to start writing columns. While education is still his main focus, Donny now wants to apply his academic rigor to other mundane activities.