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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Testing. Please Do Disturb!

As I was reviewing some old state Regents tests, I marveled at how some questions asked students to think about controversial and sometimes pressing issues, take a stand and defend it with facts.  I lamented the loss of these types of questions. 

Let me give you one example.  In August 1966, one question asked high-school students to draft a letter to an editor, responding to a statement contending that "The United States should maintain its present policy in Viet Nam (1965)."  Questions like these force children to apply what they know to current situations.  They make very interesting reading for the teacher.  And, how I wish those same students of 1966 could revisit their papers today.  We might ponder how and why some opinions change over time.  

The questions of today ask students to examine important issues, but they do not ask students to apply the knowledge to current topics.  The June 2014 DBQ asked students to consider the bubonic plague, the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing and the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as turning points in history.  The students had the task of describing the "historical circumstances" surrounding two turning points and the changes occurring as a result.  Students were not asked to deal with more current phenomenon, such as Arab Spring, or derive lessons to apply to today. 

The June 2014 thematic essay provided students with the following topic:

Throughout history, individuals have challenged established traditions and
authorities. Their efforts have inspired or influenced change and have met with
varying degrees of success.

Students were asked to explain two established traditions or "authorities" challenged by individuals, the nature of the challenges and their impact.  Students were offered suggestions for individuals, including Martin Luther and Nelson Mandela, but they were free to choose any two Global History personages, excepting those discussed in the  document-based question.  Here, if a student wanted, he might choose more current individuals.  I'm sure most opted for historical figures though given current events are severely shortchanged in the push to prep for potentially punitive tests.  Newspapers are rarely seen in schools these days.  They have yielded to review books and more uniform testing.  

In a democracy, we need to teach students to think about important current issues in critical ways.  We need to ask students to think creatively about better alternatives.  It is essential in democratic nations, that citizens learn to participate and take stands--and understand that opinions are usually works in progress.  Students must realize that there are biases embedded in which topics we choose to study as well as our choice of facts.  Only part of a story is told.  They must be encouraged to uncover more.  I'm happy students can evaluate Johannes Gutenberg's printing press, but I would love for them also to be able to evaluate the effects of 3D printers, then, make comparisons. 

If tests must be a necessary part of  education, it is essential that they help students better develop life skills.  It is essential, then, for tests to promote the general welfare, rather than to work against it.  They should also guide teachers in better serving students.  We need better tests, not so much engineered by a company for profit, but manufactured as a service to society.   Tests should not be so punitive and they should not eat up so much time.  When we are forced to sacrifice current events to weeks and weeks of test prep, we detract from the value of our students' education.  Testing should interrupt good teaching as little as possible.  Here's a sign for my door:  TEACHING IN PROGRESS.  PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB!

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