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

We’re 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.

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.

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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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If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)