Monday, January 24, 2011

Is it the teacher or the test?

     I just listened to an interesting podcast from NPR which discussed the idea that American high schools are not preparing their students well enough for military service. Among some of the information stated is that students do not have the critical thinking and problem solving skills to score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), specifically the math and science portions. Other problems discussed included the lack of physical fitness in many American teens. These problems, along with criminal records, physical handicaps, and lack of a high school diploma keep an astounding 75%+ of Americans ineligible for military service. My question about all of this information is; is it the high schools that are failing or is it the test that is failing?
    I joined the military 10 years ago, as did two of my friends who graduated from the same high school. We didn't have any problem at all scoring well on the ASVAB. (Potential recruits need only a 31 to be eligible for basic military service, but need to score much higher to be eligible for other opportunities in the military. The ASVAB contains 99 questions.) To my knowledge, the aforementioned problem did not exist to the extent that it does now. Another thing that did not exist then: high-stakes standardized tests.
     Sure, we took standardized tests, ACT, SAT, Ohio 9th grade proficiency test. Never were we told that we could not graduate (with the exception of the 9th grade proficiency test) if we failed. Politicians were not discussing linking our teachers' pay to the scores we got. The stakes were low for us as students, and without that stress, we performed. Teachers did not have to spend their time making sure to cover what was going to be on a huge test at the end of the year that they did not create. Standardized tests fail miserably at measuring things like learning, problem solving, and critical thinking. These are all things that our teachers cared about teaching us. They have real-world applications. As a consequence, we were able to enter the military, go to college, get jobs, and be successful individuals. Kids now only learn how to succeed on multiple-choice, short answer, and extended response tests.
     To make matters worse, because of the increased emphasis on standardized test scores, many schools have been forced to cut the classes that teach exactly those 21st Century skills. Classes such as art, music, and other elective courses have given way to "test prep" courses. What does it say about our emphasis on these tests that we have entire courses devoted to "test prep?" In addition, some schools are cutting gym, which is no doubt a contributing factor to the obesity problem stated in the article. I just can't help but think that we were doing pretty well before standardized tests became so "vital." After ten years of emphasis on these scores, I feel like we have left more children behind than we did before "No Child Left Behind." Are the schools failing these students, or are the tests?