Sunday, October 11, 2009

Miles Franklin Validates My Feelings About School Standardized Tests

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is pushing for Australian schools to take the standardized testing route. It's sounds very much like America's brilliant No Child Left Behind Act, which was started by everyone's favorite president, George W. Bush.

As I mentioned in a recent post, relying heavily on standardized tests has significant drawbacks. First of all, schools cheat on the tests in order to get higher scores. They lose their sense of ethics.

Teachers start to care more about raising test scores than they do about authentic learning.

Mrs. Sawyer, why does Saturn have rings?

I don't know. And since it's not going to be on any standardized tests, I don't care. We don't have time to discuss it Everyone turn to page 15 in the test booklet.

The other problem is it's unfair. Not every school has the same population of students. Children come into the classroom with different levels of intelligence and different home lives. I think these things both can make a huge difference on testing scores.

In My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin has a great monologue by a teacher. He's criticized by an inspector who has come to see his classroom. He replies:

Sir, I can and will account for it. Look you at every one of those children. Every one, right down to this little tot has to milk and work hard before and after school, besides walk on an average two miles to and from school in this internal heat. Most of the elder boys and girls milk on an average fourteen cows morning and evening. You try that treatment for a week or two, my fine gentleman, and then see if your fist doesn't ache and shake so that you can't write at all. See if you won't look a trifle dozy. Stupidity of country people be hanged! If you had to work from morning till night in the heat and dust, and get precious little for it too, I bet you wouldn't have much time to scrape your finger-nails, read science notes, and look smart.

I love that.

If we're going to test children, we can't simply compare test scores. We need to compare their lives as well.

Let's say Dave lives in an upper class home. He has internet access where he can practice his skills on various websites. He has bookshelves full of books. His mother or nanny has time to help him with his homework. The family can afford private tutors if needed. Now if Dave is low in intelligence, or has a learning disability, despite his parent's wealth, he may still find the test challenging. But I think it's likely with enough help, he can get reasonable test scores.

Ricky lives in poverty. Both his parents work. This is not an easygoing nine to five job. They're both home late in the evening. Ricky has to take care of his younger siblings, so he doesn't have much time to study or do homework. The family has no internet access. If Ricky wants to go online, he has to go to the library. But he can't go to the library often because he's usually babysitting. The family can't afford enough nutritious food. So when Ricky DOES have time to study, he's feeling too uncomfortable and irritable to put good effort into it.

Now sometimes a child like Ricky might be unusually brilliant. Despite his rough life, he can get straight A's and do great on the standardized tests. Then we can point Ricky out to children who have similar rough lives and say Look! If he can do it, so can you! Yeah okay, but most kids can't get by on their amazing brains alone. They need good nutrition, quality time with parents, and material resources.

And it's not just a wealth/poverty issue. Even children in financially stable homes can have severe challenges. Some kids deal with chronic illness (either themselves or a family member). There's divorce, death, abuse, depression, natural disasters, etc.

I think it's important that the parents, teachers, and community look at the WHOLE child, and not judge them solely on a standardized test score.