The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"In this age, which believes that there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest."... ...Henry Miller, The Books in My Life.

Commentary of the Day - May 19, 2001:  High Stakes Testing - Will It Teach Students to Think?  Guest Commentary by Brian Crouch

When Thomas Jefferson was forming the powerful principles this nation is based upon he understood something that I suggest many of us have forgotten in our rush to reform education in the United States. Jefferson argued that in order for the Republic to survive, it's citizens must be educated well enough to make informed decisions.  This "Jeffersonian" ideal is one of the basic tenets of the American public school system; and, I believe it is in danger of being abandoned as we move toward a system based more on testing what students know than on teaching them how to think.

Last summer, with other teachers from around the United States, I visited Japan on a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholarship to study Japanese culture and education.  What I found only served to reinforce my belief that if we continue our march towards this emphasis on testing we will come to regret that choice.

Many of the teachers I was with held the preconceived notion that Japanese schools are superior to their American counterparts.  Certainly, the Japanese schools are efficient and their teachers very dedicated but this idea of superiority did not stand the test of reality.  For example, I was surprised to find that most Japanese schools do not yet use computers.  One computer professor I met told me that the Japanese are easily 10 years behind the United States in school computer use!  The most surprising revelation came when Dr. Tsutomu Kimura of the Japanese Ministry of Education told us that the Japanese are converting to an American style education model because they feel we are better at teaching our students how to act and think independently.  Ironically, at the very moment we seem to be headed towards Japanese style testing, Japan is adopting a system aimed at improving their students ability to think on a higher critical level.  While Japanese students do well on standardized tests in school, as thinkers in industry and in the work place they often lack the ability to take initiative and be creative.  The Ministry feels this is one reason Japan has suffered so much in international economic competition in recent years.  They feel that to compete successfully in the 21st Century the Japanese worker must learn to think better.  Sadly, another problem that is driving education reform in Japan is a startling rise in juvenile crime and suicide.  The Ministry sees a correlation between these problems and the incredible pressure placed on Japanese students to pass high stakes tests that make or break their advancement through the school system.

I admit I have never been a big fan of high stakes testing.  The idea behind such testing seems to me to be based upon the faulty premise that intense testing will force teachers and students to perform better.  I would suggest that such testing is coercive and will turn teaching and learning into a tedious and pedantic process.  Certainly, if our goal is to raise test scores then we can probably do that but at what cost?  If we tie student advancement to high stakes tests then the entire dynamic of what we do in the classroom will change.  Teachers will be forced to eliminate anything that is not relevant to the test from their curriculum. We will reduce teaching to it's lowest component.  We will reduce learning to nothing more than the memorization of "stuff".

In my history classes every Friday we have what I call Friday Forum where we use a Socratic style dialogue that requires students to solve problems through critical thinking.  Over the years my students have told me it is their favorite activity in my classes.  It is one thing to memorize the facts of the Holocaust.  It is another thing entirely to ask questions about how and why any government in the 20th Century would sanction virulent racism and organize their resources to murder millions of civilians.  These are the kinds of lessons I believe teachers will have to sacrifice if the educational imperative becomes only to test.

I'm not opposed to setting the bar higher through achievement standards that align and clarify curriculum. I am not arguing that we teach critical thinking at the expense of a sound foundation of knowledge. I am suggesting that we must find a rational balance between objective measurements of what kids learn and teaching them how to use that knowledge.  Unfortunately, I suspect the testing bandwagon is a juggernaut that cannot be stopped.  Idaho seems headed toward high stakes testing that will make us feel good for a while but the price we pay now may show up later, the way it has in Japan.  Empirically, there is ample research to support academic arguments for and against testing, but all my instincts as a teacher and seventeen years of classroom experience tell me that this approach is contrary to everything Americans expect from their schools.  The goal of education will no longer be to produce Jefferson's thinking citizen who can negotiate the complexities of a democratic republic.  Education will merely serve the test. Idaho students and teachers can do better and, most of all, we deserve better.

©2001, Brian Crouch
Brian Crouch is an Idaho high school history teacher.  In addition to 18 years as a classroom teacher, Brian has served as a football and track coach and as a drug curriculum coordinator.

The Irascible Professor agrees wholeheartedly with Brian's call for a rational balance between the teaching of "facts" and the development of reasoning skills in the schools.  He also agrees with the notion that testing is important but needs to be put in a rational perspective.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.