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Posted at 03:17 PM ET, 08/01/2011

Why Matt Damon is wrong about standardized testing


Matt makes me a little testy. (ROBYN BECK - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Matt Damon’s recent speech to the Save Our Schools rally in support of teachers and in opposition to standardized testing has been capturing a lot of attention. Teachers, he argues, were once “EMPOWERED” to teach without reference to pesky, distracting standardized tests. “My teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzles,” said Matt, I assume with a lot of charisma.

Sounds good. But I take serious issue with Matt Damon’s words about how bad standardized tests are and how they fail to measure Things That Count: “I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test,” Damon said. “ If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test.”

Damon was raised by teachers? I was raised by standardized tests. My parents were both standardized tests. They valued rigor, efficiency and an ability to color inside the lines. My uncle was a personality test, but he was sort of the black sheep of the family and kept bringing home strange Rorschach drawings for Thanksgiving that I am pretty sure were not wearing clothes.

Matt Damon says that the things that brought him professional success and joy are not measurable on tests, but that is because Matt Damon’s joy and professional success come from qualities like “the ability to act” and “looking like Matt Damon.”

As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself – my knowledge of geography and mathematics, my love of filling in bubbles, and my ability to relate almost any subject to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – are, frankly, quite easily measurable on tests. I also pride myself on not being rabid or having measles – again, qualities that testing brings out in me.

Some people fall in love with the process of learning, Matt Damon said. Other people fall in love with the process of filling in bubbles on standardized tests. I am firmly in the latter group. I once signed up to be means-tested for Social Security because I heard the word “test” in it.

Yet based on everything I hear, teaching to the test is horrible. They force you to memorize facts and learn how to hold your pencil correctly, and they stifle your imagination so you don’t identify yourself as Cornwallis T. Gobthumper at the top of the test, which, aside from being false, takes a lot of valuable time to write and fill in correctly.

Put in those terms, it does sound a bit claustrophobic.

But tests don’t measure your ability to fill in bubbles. I wish they did, because I am an ace at filling in bubbles. Once, in a daze, I attempted to fill in the housing bubble. I am like the Jackson Pollock of filling in bubbles on standardized tests. (Possibly a bit neater.)

What tests measure, unfortunately, is your knowledge of a subject. Filling in the right bubble on a test is not some test-taking alchemy. That phrase means “correctly identifying the right answer when asked a question about a subject you’ve studied.” So there’s a false dichotomy between “teaching to the test” and “teaching.”

“They are going to ask my students questions about math,” a teacher says. “I am somehow, before the end of the year, going to be required to make my students capable of answering questions about math.”

“You're a math teacher.”

“Yes, but what about discovering their hidden voices of creativity?” The teacher sighs heavily.

“I don't have a hidden voice of creativity,” someone says at the back.

“Yes, you do, Jimmy!” the teacher yells. “Jimmy doesn’t really want to do math. I bet Jimmy wants to make area rugs out of colorful construction paper. And with the economy where it is, maybe we should encourage him. Robots will be doing all the math in 15 years.”

Perhaps we should only have non-standardized testing, so as to make students feel as at home as possible.

“He didn’t fill in any of the test bubbles at all, but he did an interpretive dance, poured milk everywhere and then offered us some choice remarks about Phineas and Ferb,” test administrators will report. ”It was a knockout performance."

True, standardized testing has its limitations. Cheating can occur! Never mind that this is a problem with any kind of measurement whatsoever. “You can't cheat with your imagination!” Maybe you can. Some say that John Milton based his most important work on something he’d already read, but who knows. No one reads any more, except in order to prepare for tests.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe Matt Damon is right. Maybe we’re moving from a knowledge economy to one where knowledge, if not an actual weakness, is something of a handicap.

After all, electronics giant Foxconn just announced plans to replace its workforce with 1 million robots. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to learn things and should instead be cultivating our creativity for as much as we’re worth. Forget testing. Forget teaching to the test. Schools should be transformed into places where teachers are EMPOWERED to let us be beautiful, unique pieces of puzzles.

With the right attitude, the results of the National geography test today were not horribly disheartening. Sure, only one in four fourth graders could identify the continents correctly. But really, what’s correctly? To say that one answer is wrong and another is right is a creativity-stifling measure if I ever heard one. “That’s not Asia,” Billy says. “It’s Cornwallis T. Gobthumper.”

That’s the sound of Billy being an individualized puzzle. That’s the sound of EMPOWERMENT! No test could capture it!

“Too often we blame the test,” said Dr. David P. Driscoll of the National Assessment Governing Board. “The test is just a mirror.”

And I like what I see. A beautiful, unique puzzle piece — incapable of doing basic math.

Matt Damon’s right. There are robots for that.

By  |  03:17 PM ET, 08/01/2011

Tags:  Matt Damon, teachers, tests

 
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