Monday, September 3, 2007

All Children Left Behind

When the concept of no child left behind was introduced, I was enthusiastic about the idea. It was about time there was an objective measure of education, to make sure no one sailed through via social promotion, and to motivate schools whose standards were not up to par.

Alas, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the reality of no child left behind, as with so many noble ideas, came to be quite different from the abstract ideal. Instead of having a flourishing rich education with an objective measure of their academic accomplishment, students and teachers are increasingly inhabiting a place where all that matters is knowing how to color in the right answer on a test, even if it is your second or third try.

Here is a inside look at the situation from a teacher in Maryland. He notes how the school has narrowed the focus of the curriculum at the areas that are tested, while leaving other areas to just get by:

” Since only reading and math have counted for Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB, the state has stopped testing the other content areas, and as the testing has narrowed and schools and districts have begun panicking about the scores, the instruction has similarly narrowed. “

One of the basic problems with the way NCLB has been implemented is in giving specific knowledge of the contents of the exams to those giving them, and thus allowing “teach to the test”, a method that may produce test results, but little in knowledge. It’s a fundamental problem of measuring people with a proxy. For example, say you owned a multi-fruited orchard, hired people to pick the fruit, and wanted to make sure they were picking as much as you expected. Now you could go to the trouble of counting all the pears, apples, oranges, and grapefruits that they picked. Or, assuming the distribution of the various types was fairly uniform, you could just count the apples, and assume if the pickers apple count was satisfactory, so was his count of each of the other fruits. You might even give raises based on the number of apples, award special privileges to those scoring highest, and promote the various foremen of the pickers groups that did best.

Now imagine what would happen if you told the pickers that you were only counting apples. Further, imagine what would happen if you let the foremen count the apples. Naturally, the pickers would focus only on picking apples, and the foremen would be motivated to inflate the apple count, or give apple credits for a picker who picked other fruits as well and didn’t reach the apple expectation. This is, in essence, what is happening to our schools because of the way NCLB has been implemented. The program should have been one of a high level exam comprising a secret subset of all the requirements of the curriculum, and administered by people with no vested interest in the outcome. Instead, It has become students, teachers, and administrators rewarded for test results, and little else, coming to focus on little else, and sometimes with the best of intentions. What we get is students who know little but how to pass a multiple choice test, for which they were essentially given the answers:

” The problem with multiple choice questions is that you do not really have to KNOW the material, you merely need to be able to recognize bad answers and eliminate them to make a decent guess. “

Indeed, kids are learning that the most important thing isn’t knowledge, but rather knowing which bubble to fill in. They see their subjects as guessing games and tricks, similar to video game cheats, which allow a player to bypass game restrictions and go directly to the desired level with our without the skill to handle it. I experienced this first hand tutoring students in math at a community college. They had no desire to learn the material, and simply waited for me to complete my explanations before asking something like “If I see this, I do that?”. As an illustration of the attitudes we are fostering in our kids, here is an actual comment left by a student on a simple traditional fill-in-the-blank exam in an introductory algebra class:

"Just to let you know, I don't know many people who can perform well on a test like this in algebra. Multiple choice tests are much better, because you can check your answer and if your [sic] like me, your brain works backwards. Given the solution, I can plug it into the question. I know I don't come to class often and more than likely that's why I failed this test. However, I have been in many classes before and this is the first time I have ever had no idea on a test."

That pretty much sums up the attitude. Anything other than what gave them the answer quickly and directly was seen as quaint academic BS. Their performance showed it too, because math is one of the few subjects where a college student is expected to remember what he learned in 4th grade. However, having gone through years of testing, and thinking only in terms of guessing, the students have no math skills. Thus we get algebra students who can’t add fractions, or can easily multiply (X + Y) (X – Y), but (A + B)( A – B) was a mystery to them. They don’t know, nor do they care why they are fundamentally the same problem, nor do they even care if they fail. Failure just means getting to try again. Here is how that problem manifested itself for the teacher in Maryland when she gave the kids a simple quiz:

” I even reminded them that leaving an answer blank was a mistake, that there was no further penalty for filling in a wrong answer. Yet about 1/3 of the students made no real attempt. I discovered that some of them were used to not even trying because they were used to getting to retake tests in which they did badly, so why bother?

Here's a key point - this is a quiz. It takes maybe 15-20 minutes. Before they take it I go over about 3/4 of the material with them - in other words, they have just heard again enough to be able to pass. And yet there is no effort. This is unlike anything I have ever seen.

I talked with other teachers in the building, and my experience is not unusual. School for many of these students has been reduced to how they do on tests used to measure the school, and why care about anything else? As soon as those tests are done they shut down mentally. Besides, what happens during the preparation for those tests is mindless, mind-numbing.”

Different state, but this is consistent with my experience as well. If this is the best implementation of the NCLB idea, then it needs to be scrapped. As much as I like the idea of requiring children to demonstrate competence in their subjects before graduating, this manner of doing it is worse than the old system. The tests are supposed to be the means, and they have become the end. I think the Maryland teacher put it well:

” We should be teaching our students how to learn, not merely how to pass tests. There should be joy and excitement in learning knew things, in having one's mind expanded. Instead there is dullness and drudgery.”


Little David said...

One thing I support about "No Child Left Behind" is that it introduces standards of learning tests to the High School Diploma.

Gone will be the days that a student is awarded a High School Diploma without being able to read it.

I look forward to critics of the "No Child Left Behind" effort to suggest improvements. However, No Child Left Behind stops awarding students diplomas without being able to read or cipher elementary math.

My suggestion? We continue the hard core testing of elementary subjects so that when a student successfully earns a high school diploma the diploma actually means something. The award of a diploma means the student has mastered ELEMENTARY skills such as reading and math. The displayer of such a diploma can be counted on how to read instruction manuals, read a tape measure, and be counted on to extrapulate from that which is understood.

Is this too much to expect from those awarded a High School diploma?

But then teachers "teach the test"! DAMN GOOD THING. Teach them kids to read, write and figure math. Let the High School Diploma represent that the recipient can do so. Let teachers who are motivated to teach other things other then basic skills seek employment in universities.

Before "No Child Left Behind" we had kids being awarded High School Diplomas without the ability to read. I am willing to seek improvement. However I am unwilling to compromise on the "Standards of Learning" tests. I am unwilling to go back to bearers of High School Dimplomas struggling with "See Dick run" or having to take their shoes off to count beyond the number ten.

"No Child Left Behind" can be improved upon. However "Standards of Learning" tests are here to stay if my vote has anything to say about it.

ScienceAvenger said...

Little David said:

Gone will be the days that a student is awarded a High School Diploma without being able to read it.

That's a nice goal LD, but that's not what has happened. Now kids are not only graduating without the basic knowledge we'd expect them to have, they are also leaving with a completely warped vision of what an education is.

No Child Left Behind stops awarding students diplomas without being able to read or cipher elementary math.

No it doesn't. Have you not been paying attention to what those who are teaching these kids are seeing? They have virtually no math skills, zippo, because of the emphasis on test tricks in lieu of a real math education.

But then teachers "teach the test"! DAMN GOOD THING.

I'm sorry LD, you are just displaying your ignorance. Teaching to the test doesn't teach the kids anything except how to pass a test. As the letter from the student I quoted above clearly illustrates, kids who have been taught to the tests can't do the simplest problem posed to them if they don't have answers to pick from. Perhaps it has passed your notice, but in the real world, we don't get answers provided with our problems.

Before "No Child Left Behind" we had kids being awarded High School Diplomas without the ability to read.

Yes, and now with NCLB we are awarding diplomas to kids who can't read, do math, or even have the slightest comprehension of what knowledge is. Burying one's head in the sand and plodding on with the status quo won't improve that.