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Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 10/01/2011

Parent: Too many tests, not enough term papers

This was written by Wendy Lecker, a parent of three children in Stamford, Connecticut’s public schools (two in high school).

Stamford’s school system is diverse and has made strides in improving curriculum and reducing in-school segregation, Lecker says, but there is a great deal of pressure to raise test scores, which “tends to result in scripted curricula that often ignore the skills all children need to succeed.”

For example, she says, her children who are in high school — a junior and a sophomore — “have yet to be assigned a writing assignment longer than three pages.”

A version of this was originally published in the Stamford Advocate.

By Wendy Lecker

Anyone who teaches, works or has a child in public school, has to wonder whether those making education policy have ever considered the effects their grand pronouncements and policies have in real life.

The Common Core State Standards are a perfect example. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts and math are an attempt to standardize what students learn from kindergarten through 12th grade, and so far, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them.

Leaving aside the complete absence of evidence that articulating “standards” has ever had any effect on learning or achievement, let’s focus in on the main weapon in the Common Core arsenal: the new tests.

The Obama administration is supporting efforts that it says will create tests linked to the Common Core standards that actually assess “higher order thinking” and will ensure that all children are “college-ready.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan has asserted that these tests will not just be “fill-in-the-bubble tests” but rather will be open ended. Sounds good, right? Has Mr. Duncan actually examined the open-ended tests that currently exist?

Many state standardized tests already include open-ended questions, to test writing, for example. And as Dan Rather recently reported in an eye-opening piece called “ Bad Score ,” the manner in which these tests are scored is horrifying.

Scorers, almost always temporary seasonal workers, sit sweat-shop style in a large room for reading similar essays for eight hours straight. They allot thirty seconds to each essay. Their scores depend on what time of day it may be, how many similar scores they have already given (too many 4’s? start giving some 3’s!), and other completely arbitrary “criteria.” What do we expect in 30 seconds? Higher order? Really?

This assembly line will only become more frenetic as the Obama administration pushes states to institute these open-ended assessments in every subject. More tests scored in 30 seconds each are a great boon to the testing industry. But do we really expect that they will show that our children can “analyze and solve complex problems, communicate clearly, synthesize information,” and the other skills that Mr. Duncan trumpets they will do?

Of course not. For those who pay attention to evidence of what really goes on with children, no test will measure the true abilities necessary for success in school and life. Nor will preparing for such a test develop them. As many studies show, discipline trumps IQ in predicting academic achievement. Thus, schools that focus on developing that discipline in children will succeed in helping them learn best.

To truly develop academic discipline, policy makers must first abandon the confusion between a lot of work and hard work. “Covering content,” copious amounts of it, is not learning. It is a lot of work, but it is mind-numbing. It certainly does not render a student “college-ready.” In fact, the vast majority of college professors complain that students arrive at college completely unprepared to do college level research and writing.

Rather than develop new standardized tests, we would serve our children better by giving them the opportunity to do some hard work. As Norm Augustine, former chair of Lockheed Martin, recently noted in The Wall Street Journal, researching and writing term papers is the kind of hard work that builds academic discipline.

“An education in history can create critical thinkers who can digest, analyze and synthesize information and articulate their findings. These are skills needed across a broad range of subjects and disciplines,” he wrote.

Mr. Augustine points out that those children who can research and write often perform better in all subjects. The kind of writing that is necessary not the five formulaic paragraphs we find in state standardized tests or even Advanced Placement exams. Students must be able to do original research, and translate that research into coherent papers.

Every child, no matter what her background, can build this discipline. Will Fitzhugh, the editor of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes exemplary high school term papers offers a road map for schools.

In his Page Per Year plan, a first grader would write one page on a subject other than herself, using one source. The pages and sources would increase per year: two pages and sources in second grade, three in third, etc. By high school, students will not only be proficient readers and writers, but they will have a chance to think deeply and form their own conclusions about world events. They will have the skills to succeed in school and to be responsible and engaged citizens.

While parents I know lament the virtual disappearance of the term paper and their children’s incessant memorization of “content,” I have never heard a parent (or teacher) say, “What we really need to fix this is some more standardized tests.”

Of course, to bring back the term paper, policy makers would have to ensure school districts have the capacity and resources to give teachers the time and freedom to assign, supervise and grade these papers — tasks that will surely take more than 30 seconds. That would require doing something policy makers are loath to do these days: trusting those closest to our children, those who know our children best, to do what is best for them.

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By  |  10:22 AM ET, 10/01/2011

 
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