Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Should I Be Blogging Today? It's Not on the Test...

The next four days are what I call "Spring Break Mark II"--the days that the bulk of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests are being administered in the public schools. This means that I'm pretty much exclusively a college professor for the rest of the week, as most of the public schools are completely closed to all but test-takers and test-givers. It's nice to get the extra sleep, but I'm unable to teach during a week when the majority of my students have auditions for next year coming up within the next few weeks. (I also tend to have a sharp, stabbing pain in the wallet area from all the missed lessons, but that's another story.)

I've spoken at length on this blog of how I feel about the over-reliance on standardized tests (just enter "TAKS" in the search bar at the top of the blog to see the earlier posts), so I won't belabor the point here. I will say again that I'm glad that the tests are going away pretty soon, at least at the high school level, and being replaced with end-of-course exams. (That's right--they're actually testing the material that students have just learned--as opposed to, say, the science TAKS, which is taken in the junior year and covers biology [which was taken freshman year] and physics [which some people don't take until senior year]. Testing what people have actually been studying during the year makes so much sense that it's hard to believe the lawmakers and bureaucrats approved it.)

But it would be great if the test went away at other grade levels as well. At the least, Those In Charge could remember that the A in TAKS stands for Assessment, so it should follow that the test is given at the beginning of the year to determine what needs to be the focus of the rest of the year--not at the end of the year, not tied to promotion onto the next grade, and not tied to the teacher's job security.

I may have mentioned this before, but I have a friend whose wife teaches second grade. A year or so ago, she was offered a "promotion" to third grade, and she turned it down. Why? Because third grade is a TAKS year, and she had heard enough horror stories from her colleagues about stressed-out third-graders around test time. Let me repeat that so it sinks in: Stressed-out third-graders. (I should point out that my single biggest memory of third grade was when our reading teacher read the entire book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to us in class, every day for several weeks. And that's the kind of memories kids should retain from that age--not studying for a high-stakes test.)

Speaking of stressed-out third graders, someone sent me a great video a few months ago, which I decided to save until this week. It's from singer-songwriter Tom Chapin, and it's called "Not on the Test." Chapin plays a dad who's singing to his third-grade son (who's not having much success getting to sleep) the night before one of these high-stakes tests. It's not on YouTube, so I can't embed it here, but please visit the link and send it to your friends. And your legislators.

Chapin explains why he did the song:
As a kid who grew up in NYC, I am a great fan of America’s public education. I attended P.S. 46 in Greenwich Village, then P. S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, then on to Brooklyn Technical High School and S.U.N.Y. Plattsburgh.

And now, as a father and a grandfather, I so appreciate the tough job that faces every teacher. I believe they need all the help they can get: anything that excites a student, opens their eyes, and hearts and minds is a positive that makes a child invest in school.

Music, art, drama and sports - these are what kept me involved when I was in school. And these very things, that make a teacher’s (and student’s) job easier and more rewarding, are what’s been cut from curriculums across the country.

Now we are teaching by rote again - where the test, and only the test, becomes the reason to teach and study.

It’s no secret that American industry has outsourced most factory jobs to other countries to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. So why are we putting so much effort into a form of education in which there is no creativity? This is the time that our youth should be taught to think ”out of the box,” not be put into a tighter one!
Well said, Tom. As I mentioned earlier, it's good to see a little progress in this area (with the impending phase-out of high school TAKS), but there's so much more work to be done. Ideally, the importance of standardized tests (except as the diagnostic tools they were designed to be in the first place) would be diminished, and principals would be able to do what was expressed by a great headline in the paper a few months ago: Hire good teachers, and leave them alone.

Be sure and read all the material on Chapin's website; there's also some great arts advocacy statements over there.

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