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America’s students aren’t well-served by rigid ‘teaching to the test’

standardized test
Sadly, most of Jeff’s students are extremely comfortable with a No. 2 pencil and a Scantron form (or taking the objective quiz on-line).

Two MinnPost commenters critiqued a recent Community Voices column on higher education, and rightfully took to task one of us for speaking ill of the class of 2013. They commented that today’s students are connected, global in outlook, creative, open-minded, thoughtful and ambitious. We agree. Jeff never meant to imply that they aren’t. We would like to make clear what was intended.

authors photo
Courtesy of the authors
Heather Kolnick and Jeff Kolnick

Several years ago, Jeff was invited to Romania by the University of Bucharest to help transform an educational system consistent with a Stalinist outlook into one consistent with democracy. He went with some friends who helped to form the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy. They began their journey by listening.

They learned that in Romania, exams at the primary and collegiate levels were largely objective. Education was about measuring how many right answers you could fill in in a given time. The idea was not to challenge what was being taught, but to memorize it. Of course, in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, there was only one answer to any question, and that was what the government said. Not only did the Romanian educational establishment teach to the test, but they did so in an authoritarian manner consistent with that goal. Faculty lectured, students took notes. There was no give and take, no challenging of authority.

Jeff’s group recommended subjective exams and democratic pedagogy. The irony is that shortly after giving this advice to the University of Bucharest and the Romanian government, our own nation began to journey down the path of authoritarian education and pedagogy, as mandated by No Child Left Behind.

Years of standardized testing

Heather, Jeff’s niece, graduated from a California public high school in 2010. Through anecdotes strikingly similar to the stories Jeff tells from his time in Romania, she recalls being raised, for the majority of her educational career, with standardized testing. On the first day of class, some teachers would outline the rigid course material for the year on the board, even including codes next to each topic that identified its location in the California STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) list of standards.

One student, she remembers, eagerly asked her history teacher if a specific event in U.S. history would be covered. The teacher responded by informing the student that the event was not included in the STAR handbook, and therefore could not be taught. It became clear on every first day that the school year would be structured around the material on the state test, and that the results on the test affected her school’s reputation and funding.

Jeff has been teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University since 1992, and has a bit of experience teaching at Augsburg College and in two state correctional institutions. In that time, he has seen a decline in the ability of his students to write. When he began, the vast majority of his first-year students could write a decent paragraph. They had trouble writing essays and developing an idea into several paragraphs with strong transitions. Now, the vast majority of his students can write a clean sentence, but they have trouble developing a single idea into a coherent paragraph supported by evidence. When he once focused his classes on essay writing, he now focuses on teaching how to write a paragraph before moving on to essays.

Less familiar with U.S. history

When Jeff began teaching, most of his students were familiar with the basic facts of U.S. history. Now, they are less familiar and he finds himself with a more difficult task than he formerly had. Now, he needs to teach the facts in addition to unpacking the myth-filled stories that waft through America and masquerade as real history. He cannot be certain, but perhaps this is because in Minnesota we do not have a high-stakes test in history and so it has become a lower priority in the schools.

Many of Jeff’s students are uncomfortable and reluctant writers. Sadly, most of them are extremely comfortable with a No. 2 pencil and a Scantron form (or taking the objective quiz on-line).  Perhaps our nation’s embrace of standardized, high-stakes testing has nothing to do with this – but we doubt it.

Heather, who will begin her senior year at St. Catherine University this fall, believes objective testing is a poor and ineffective manner in which to assess students’ knowledge of course material. The idea that the right answer is always “A, B, C, or D,” and can only be absorbed by way of rote memorization, neither promotes intellectual inquiry, nor prepares students for active citizenship.

Our intention here is not to belittle students who are graduating in 2013. They are not responsible for the authoritarian educational reforms associated with No Child Left Behind or high-stakes testing. That they remain creative, open minded, ambitious, connected, and global in their outlook is a testament to their tenacity.  

Seeking more debate, discourse

What concerns us is the shift to the model of accountability now in vogue: test and measure with objective data (or keep pushing for software that allows machines to grade essays). We are not afraid of accountability or assessment. But we demand that we accomplish this in a way that is consistent with democratic practice — with debate, disputation, and civil discourse.

Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us that every generation of students needs to be “shocked into thinking.” Jeff certainly did, and so do today’s young people. Our fear is that today’s students are not well served by the testing regime, and neither is American democracy.

Jeff Kolnick is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State UniversityHeather Kolnick is a senior art history and French double major at St Catherine University.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Hagen-Smith on 08/27/2013 - 10:16 am.


    This column addresses a very important issue that continues to plague education. Hopefully, the creators of the new Common Core Standards will focus upon this critical issue when formulating upcoming assessments. In addition, students, teachers, and schools need to be evaluated by a broader criteria than one exam each year. Thank you for these insights.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 08/27/2013 - 11:00 am.


    As I wrote in another comments section about education our children are being taught to the test and it is not serving them well when to compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world like China and Europe. In many countries schools go year round and often the best and the brightest go into teaching neither of which happens much in the US. We need to get over the notion that children in MN are competing against students in WI, their competition is global and on the global state US students do very poorly. If students can not find countries like Iraq and Syria on a map how are they to understand other cultures and future global issues?

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/27/2013 - 12:26 pm.


    The thing about standardized testing is that it’s a panacea. We want one easy and simple standard to judge eduction by. But there are a variety of types of intelligence, and God help the society whose members as a group don’t have all of those types.

    Einstein said that not everything that counts can be counted, and not every thing counts can be counted. But we still try.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/27/2013 - 03:43 pm.

    “Standardized Testing” Makes Indoctrination FAR Easier

    Which, is of course, why our “conservative” friends, in the same manner as Ceaușescu, like it so much.

    In the midst of teaching important facts and skills, REAL education also needs to teach our students how to LEARN, how to QUESTION, how to EVALUATE the veracity of information,..

    i.e. how to distinguish verifiable facts from propaganda.

    It does not wipe out “faith” nor the spiritual side of life, but rather, provides better ways of coming to faith perspectives and evaluating those that surround you. (Those perspectives which cannot stand up to closer examination will, of course, need to be improved.) It supports neither atheism, nor religion in its many forms, leaving that up to parents, communities, and communities of faith, but provides at least a taste of most perspectives.

    The reality is that back in the “good old days” school was the primary source of information about math, science, the wider community, history, and the rest of the world for the vast majority of students. In those days, information was scarce and learning about these things was vital for an informed citizenry.

    Now, there’s so much information out there, that our students need to learn discernment; need to learn, for instance, that information they find on the net (whether “liberal” or “conservative”) which has no authoritative, verifiable source, even if it has a thousand web sites that repeat it, is likely to be completely undependable at best, and downright false at worst.

    They need to be able to spot when someone is trying to sell them something for no other purpose than enriching that other person, whether that’s a multilevel distributorship, a beauty product, a miracle cure, an investment opportunity, or the ideas of Ayn Rand.

    The days when kids could look at graduation from whatever level of education as the end of having to learn new things (which is, after all, the model that high-stakes, standardized tests are based on) are past. What we need to be testing our kids on is their ability to sort through information, verify it, understand what’s useful and important, and reject whats false or misleading.

    We should even be teaching our kids the care and feeding of their own psyches, especially how to deal in healthy ways with the stress and grief of being adolescents, trying to become who they were designed to be, especially when that’s not likely to be popular, and moving in and out of their first deeply loving relationships.

    If we had been teaching our kids these skills all along, weasel news would have no audience, nor would much of the deteriorating mainstream media, the members of the Democratic Party would be better equipped to fight for those who need protection, BOTH parties would be less prone to manipulation by those with lots of cash to contribute to their campaigns, and the Republican Party would not be tearing itself apart trying to deal with those who are convinced that what they believe must CERTAINLY be true trumps millions of tons of verifiable evidence to the contrary.

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