RE: “US Drive for Test Scores has stifled student’s creativity” by Theodora Kalikow.

I am only a humble rural school master (I chiefly teach immigrant kids) but I want you to know that I think you are on to something.    Public schools have a public purpose that goes beyond  the achievement of a small academic elite.   Non mihi, non tibi sed nobis.  (Not for me alone not for you alone but for all)

Diane Ravitch’s books have had a great influence on me as an individual and as a teacher.  Books such as the LANGUAGE POLICE,  LEFT BACK,  and the LIFE AND DEATH OF THE AMERICAN SCHOOL SYSTEM remain compelling reading.   Dr. Ravitch of course is more than a statistics maven; she is a woman of learning and culture who cares deeply about America, America’s schools and our civic culture.  Hence she has edited splendid books which I use as supplements in my English and history classes: the AMERICAN READER and the ENGLISH READER.   I think those books should be on the required curriculum of every college in America they are that good. I enjoy re-reading them myself and find myself referring back to them all the time.  That , to me is the mark of an enduring classic.  Many of Ravitch’s books are and will be classics.

In that spirit, we taught academic subjects such as reading, English, writing, mathematics, science, history, international languages and so on, but we also provided field trips, sports and physical education, music and art, plus opportunities for leadership, volunteering and community involvement.

Of course, we need high academic standards but we also need well-rounded individuals who gain REAL LIFE EXPERIENCE not merely academic knowledge.  

Of course we have a responsibility to what I call the “AP elite” but we also need to help all students begin to assimilate to American life and prepare for life as adults and citizens.  This is why I as a teacher am the advisor to the Hispanic Bible Club which meets three times a week during my lunch hour and our Academic Decathlon team during my Monday lunch hour.   In other years I have volunteered to help the “We the People” Constitution team.  The experience students get in running club meetings, doing fund raisers, having guest speakers in areas of their interest, seeing special movies going on class trips.   Students who are involved in school activities are much less likely to commit suicide, use drugs or drop out of school.   Students become closer to teachers –and learn a lot from them- in these informal voluntary setting.  It is a great opportunity for teachers to mentor youth.

Excessive emphasis on standardized MC tests is providing students a diet of academic junk food.    Standardized tests have the virtue in that they are easy to correct and easy thus to use in a common measuring stick but they do not accurately reflect true growth in the classroom and academic engagement.  

In fact, I believe, standardized tests help destroy interest in reading and learning.    It certainly makes me as a classroom teacher hate the “testing regime”.   I give the tests they make me use because I am a good soldier but I believe the amount of time spent on these tests (about 20% of all class time) is excessive.  I do feel for the students who struggle to concentrate on these mind-numbing tests on language conventions and reading comprehension of basically random, sterile, lifeless nothing prose. 

I have seen the test regime bring CFA (Common Formative Assessments).   As an ELD (English Language Development) teacher I believe foisting  college prep multiple choice  tests on immigrant kids –test that use language and vocabulary that the students have never seen- is harmful.   I try to palliate the situation by using the CFA’s as “practice” for the CST’s (State Standards Tests) but I tell the students I will never consider them the full basis of their grades.  

 I never give multiple choice tests on my own preferring to encourage critical thinking and writing. 

On a recent test on the origins of WWII  for my ELD  World History class the emphasis was understanding how dictators (fascist but also a communist –Stalin) and policies like appeasement led to WWII.   Rather than merely asking a series of questions to mere sentences I had a series of political cartoons (from the 1930’s ) on themes such as the Japanese invasion of Manchuria,  Hitler’s annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia and the 1939 Russo-German Pact.  I also included an extra credit part on Picasso’s Guernica which included a reproduction of the painting.

 I found it very interesting that more students could explain Picasso’s painting rather than the Russo-German Pact which always confuses students because the focus of the book is the Axis Alliance and of course later Stalin becomes an Ally and an enemy of Hitler.   Some of the responses were very interesting and moving; some knew it hung in a New York museum until Spain became a democracy and one girl even remembered it hung in the Reina Sofia annex at the Prado.   That was just a fact I mentioned in passing in class discussion but it shows to me that the students enjoyed moving away from the big picture policy questions to a more humanist viewpoint.

I felt it was very important to make some mention (even though it is not on the California History Standards ) of  Franco,  the Spanish Civil War and Picasso’s Guernica. 

 I use Guernica a motif for total war in which there are no front lines and civilians including women and children can be targets.   

I link this to the modern phenomenon of terrorism where every body is a target.   Teaching about Picasso is cross curricular; linking the Spanish Civil War and WWII to the origins of modern terrorism  is, in my view, one of purposes of history.  The standardized tests are not like this at all and focus on superficial knowledge and “gotcha” artificial questions such as “all of the above’ or which one does NOT belong. 

Standardized tests DO HAVE SOME VALUE, especially when they are authentic instruments like the CSET (elementary school teacher’s exams)  Praxis  or AP  exams. All of these exams have written portions which in my view authentic those tests and validate the broad “dip stick” value of batteries of multiple choice tests.   The foreign language tests in AP and Praxis require a spoken and listening portion.

But standardized tests should not be the ultimate goal.  They are not education in themselves nor do they represent what is the best of what education is.  The goals of education should not be high test scores or high grades (both can be achieved by fakery and cheating) but

1)       the formation of character and self-control.

2)       the cultivation of intellect

3)       the development of judgment

4)       inspiration of delight in the right things; that is to say the elevation of tastes

5)       teaching about citizenship (civic virtue) and the common good.      This includes teaching the youth to have a sense of gratitude for our great and free nation and the sacrifices of patriots and heroes who made this freedom possible.

Education can never be merely about individual achievement; it also must be about developing a sense of common democratic values and respect for due process of law and respect for others.   Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit wrote in THE SCOPE OF HAPPINESS:

<< Education is not merely a means for earning a living or an instrument for the acquisition of wealth.  It is an initiation into a life of the spirit, a training of the human soul in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue.>>

I always tell my students that there are two educations: One is the practical one; how to make a living (most of us have to do this.  The other, perhaps more important is HOW TO LIVE and HOW TO UNDERSTAND LIFE, LOVE and DEATH.

   I believe this with every fiber of my body.

I very much appreciated your remarks and hope your college uses holistic measures for the admittance of your students not only GPA’s.