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To Love Learning

By PAM BERNS
 Imagine a situation where the school testing period for college entrance exams is a major event throughout our country, where “green protection zones” near exam locations don’t permit construction projects and where noisy traffic is rerouted. Imagine that taxicabs are reserved in advance to shuttle students to exams and where anxious students running late get police escorts to rush them to exams.
   You are in China. How you score on tests determines where you go to elementary and secondary school as well as college. Your career depends on it.
   The pressure is enormous on these students. They are expected to memorize volumes of information and compete in a standardized test system viewed as the only fair way to determine how one fares in the world.
   Many Americans fear that China’s emphasis on education in math and science is gaining on our status in the world marketplace. For Americans, “the rise of China and India is putting even more emphasis on the demand for education reform,” writes Shanghai-based Anna Greenspan in the Globalist.
  Chinese students are known for their amazing capacity to memorize and quote classical texts. Greenspan writes of two Chinese students who “turned in the exact same essay for an in-class exam. After questioning them, it became clear that both students had memorized the same passages in preparation for the test.”
  Chinese students studying abroad score near-perfect results on standardized exams in our country and in Europe. According to Greenspan, Chinese students are taught that “all questions have but one right answer.”
   Some Chinese seem baffled by our emphasis on original thinking and its negative—plagiarism. But, writes Greenspan, Chinese parents worry about their children and the stressful exam process. There is little educational reform that can result when exams hold such power. That should be a lesson to us.
    Many American educators are convinced that we may have to adjust our efforts to a more disciplined system if we are to maintain a scientific edge in a world. In our country, the well-meaning “No Child Left Behind” law has promoted American state achievement tests as the measurement of how well a student is doing academically—a concept that sounds “positively Chinese,” a term Greenspan uses.
   But there is a very disturbing trend going on in our country as a result of the “No Child Left Behind” law that aims to bring all students up to their grade level by 2014. As reported in The New York Times by Trip Gabriel, all over the United States, teachers are tampering with test scores to inflate the results of the
standardized tests required by “Leave No Child Behind.” The tampering has been done by teachers, assistant principals and principals to bolster their careers in times where success is
measured by the results of these standardized tests. Some science and math teachers earn bonuses of thousands of dollars as a result of good test results. Colorado has a policy that ties teachers’ tenure to test results.
   Gabriel writes that there is no actual national data on educator cheating, yet numerous tactics have been uncovered, including in Georgia where educators erased students’ answers and penciled-in the right answers. They were caught when a computer scanner picked up the wrong-to-right erasures. Gabriel writes that John Fremer—a specialist in data forensics who was hired to investigate—said, “Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating.”
  Gabriel also writes that Steven D. Levitt, a blogger for the New York Times, estimates that 4 to 5 percent of elementary teachers cheated in the 1990s in Chicago public schools after “high-stakes” testing was introduced. This shocking percentage is no doubt hard to prove. But when so much depends on test results rather than teaching students to love learning, the whole academic effort is distorted and children lose—not to mention what message we are giving our children when they discover that their teachers have been cheating.
   Psychologist and MacArthur Foundation recipient Howard Gardner of Harvard University has written extensively on multiple intelligences ranging from logical-mathematical to linguistic to musical/rhythmic. His research and theories are inspiring in that he encourages parents and educators to help children to be what they’re supposed to be, not what we would like them to be.
  He emphasizes that each intelligence has a biological basis, that children have various intelligences that become refined as each child develops into his or her full potential, and each must be
educated recognizing these intelligences. One of Gardner’s often-cited quotes brings clarity to the insecurities of educators who are bent on standardized testing:
   “I believe that the brain has evolved over millions of years to be responsive to different kinds of content in the world. Language content, musical content, spatial content, numerical content, etc.”
   Not every American child will become a math genius or scientist. We need to accept and nurture the innate gifts and talents that every child has and help them develop problem-solving skills.
And this nurturing should begin early in life, in pre-school and grade school.
   “I think tolerating a certain degree of failure—not because it’s good for you but because it’s a necessary part of growth—is a very important part of the message the leadership can give,” said Gardner.
   Standardized testing, however well-intentioned the effort, has diverted attention away from maintaining the critical ratio of teachers to children and the most important messages of all—
development of character and the importance of creativity and honesty—in a changing world.

Published: August 08, 2010
Issue: Fall 2010 Issue