Primary and secondary education in the United States is largely in bed with the providers of standardized testing. Where people my age (don’t ask) only had to submit to the PSAT and the SAT, students in our schools today have to submit to an almost annual battery of tests. Because the results students achieve on these tests are tied to funding levels, both from the state and federal governments, teachers all over the United States are encouraged to drop whatever they’re doing as the date of the big tests approaches and teach their students how to answer the questions on those tests. Note–they teach them how to answer the questions, not how to know what they need to know based on whatever the goals of the curriculum might be.
I know a fair amount about these tests from first hand experience, since I have a son in fourth grade and another in first. Thankfully, first graders are spared these tests, but last year and this year, my older child has brought home one review sheet after another with instructions to parents on how to drill their children on the multiple choice questions they’ll likely face. As an educator, the whole thing makes steam come out of my ears. As a parent, I of course, help my child do his homework…but with my teeth grinding the whole time.
Historians know (or ought to know) a lot about standardized testing because it was a history test that inaugurated the whole mess. As Sam Wineburg points out in his article Crazy for History (Journal of American History, 90/4 (2004)), the first such test was administered in the Texas public schools in 1915-16 to see what students knew about history.
The results of this first test were shocking to those administering it. From the list of names and dates they gave students, elementary students recognized 16 percent and after a year of high school history, students only scored 33 percent. College students were also tested and they fared only slightly better, managing to recognize 49 percent of the names and dates on the test.
As Wineburg points out, these scores have changed very little since 1916. Could it be that the problem is not with the students, but with the test? Read Sam’s full article for more on why that might be.
My own concern arises out of what the renewed mania for cramming names and dates down students’ throats means for students who show up in my classrooms at the university level. They are shocked to find that I do not expect them to memorize even more names and dates. They are also pleasantly surprised to find that history classes can actually be interesting when the emphasis is placed on history as historians understand the term rather than on history as standardized test writers understand the term.
Thus far, the fact acquisition model of history teaching hasn’t beaten the joy of learning about the past out of my children. But I worry that it will before long.
Here’s one anecdote that every public school administrator should read. I’m a volunteer in my childrens’ elementary school and one of the fourth grade girls–a very bright student–I work with told me that she wouldn’t be back the following year. When I asked where she was moving to, she said that she wasn’t moving. Instead, her parents had decided to put her into private school. When I asked why, she said that her mother, who is a 9th grade history teacher in the public schools, had decided that all the testing being done was ruining public education and didn’t want her children to have to put up with it.
When teachers–who can hardly afford to send their children to private school–are pulling their own children out of the system, that’s a pretty damning commentary, don’t you think?