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No Tests? College's Students Must Relearn How to Learn

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006

By the end of last year, Elizabeth Fleming had taken the SAT, the PSAT, four AP exams and seven IB exams. At Richard Montgomery High School, her classmates agonized over the scores they needed to get into a good college, and the entire jittery month of May was spent cramming for exams.

This year, she got a culture shock.

Fleming enrolled at St. John's College, a tiny liberal arts school in Annapolis where scores are irrelevant: no exams to speak of, and no grades unless students request them.

She went from one extreme to another. In a country where "benchmarking" and "high-stakes testing" continue to be buzzwords, many Washington area high schools stand out for their competitiveness, their emphasis on testing and the stress students feel to get good numbers. "It escalates every year," independent college counselor Shirley Bloomquist said.

College is a change for most students, a shift from memorization to analysis, from weekly did-you-do-the-homework quizzes to weighty final papers. "In this era of No Child Left Behind, these students that will be coming to college are tested within an inch of their lives so regularly and so intensely," said John Bader, associate dean for academic programs and advising at Johns Hopkins University, who is co-writing a book on admissions and success.

Some college departments, such as political science, do not give college credit for AP scores, because the tests are mostly multiple choice. In many college courses, Bader said, "Most of what you learn is that there is no clear answer. There is no right or wrong. Yet when you test all the time, you're of course suggesting there is."

For freshmen such as Fleming who are whipsawed from pressure-cooker, high-achieving high schools to colleges that take a longer-term, more philosophical view of learning, the first semester is an education in itself.

Almost all have to learn a new way of learning. Without scores, they have to decide: Can they progress without measurement? Or is it possible to measure the things that really matter?

'The Weird School'

Fleming was tired of memorizing facts and strategizing for tests and listening to everyone obsess about grades. She knew St. John's was going to be a drastic change -- maybe too drastic.

"It gets made fun of a lot," she said at the end of the summer. "My friends call it 'the weird school' -- a lot of them think it doesn't do anything in terms of getting you a job. They just think it's silly."

On the first day of the fall semester, professors -- called tutors -- crisscrossed the brick walkways on the Annapolis campus with academic robes floating out behind them. During convocation, Fleming listened to the president begin speaking in Greek, discuss Plato's dialogues and muse on how he does not really know what learning is. Socrates is compared to a torpedo fish, whose sting leaves people numb, realizing their own ignorance.

Older students and faculty nodded.

Fleming thought: Hmmm. This is a long speech.

"All the freshmen were like, 'Um, what's going on?' "

One father -- who was deeply skeptical of the school from the beginning -- laughed afterward and said it reminded him of Hogwarts, Harry Potter's wizarding school, with its obscure lessons and mysterious initiation rites.

Inevitably some students drop out, unable to get through the endless philosophical conversations, worried that they will not be prepared for a career or needing the threat of bad grades to get them out of bed to class in the morning. Several did this fall, Fleming said -- just packed their bags and were gone.

"I don't know how I've been doing, actually," said Allison Dietz, a freshman from Bethesda. "Sometimes I'm worried -- maybe I'm not getting any of this -- maybe I just think I understand this." Friends in her dorm told her they worried about the same thing. "It's possible none of us get it."

Eric Honour, a freshman from Fairfax, said, "There are a lot of people, it would drive them crazy," not getting scores all the time. "They could not deal with it." But without constant tests, it was easier to get behind in his Greek class.

But many students said they loved the seminars, and the connections between classes.

Even though she'd never liked geometry before, Fleming became fascinated by Euclid. Sometimes when someone was writing out a proposition on the blackboard, and she saw how the lines and angles and logic all snapped into place, she would think: That is beautiful.

At midterm, Fleming's friends at other colleges were frantically studying for exams.

"I felt kind of bad that I wasn't stressed out about anything," she said.

Tutor Deborah Renaut watches the students learn to learn from one another, not just relying on her for instruction and approval. Some still try to decode her words if she talks about what interested her in their papers. "They want to know -- 'Does that mean it's good?' "

In lab one day this fall as they began learning about measurement, students spent the class talking about quantifying and qualifying, what could be measured and why, Swiss cheese, baseball, emotions, pencils and how close to death Socrates recommended living.

"I feel like we do try to quantify thoughts," one of the 15 students said. "Like standardized tests -- IQ tests."

"But intangibility is part of what makes a thought a thought," another freshman said.

"So we should ask -- is it possible to quantify and qualify everything?" the tutor asked.

After class, Renaut said, "Miss Fleming asked, 'Why do we measure?'

"It's one of the big questions. It's good. Because -- who thought about that yesterday? . . . Why do we measure? Why are these things important?"

The question went unanswered.

Judgment Day

As the term went along, freshmen got more and more worried about the evaluations that were coming, called don rags perhaps because of an Oxford tradition, in which the tutors sit down with each student and talk about his or her progress.

"It's judgment day," Renaut said. "It's an incredible pressure, evaluation -- you really do feel like you're going to be going in there naked."

Fleming had heard that a lot of people burst into tears. "It's frightening," she said. The five tutors sat at a table, staring at her as she sat down, then talking about her in the third person. "I kept giving myself little pinches, thinking, 'This is so nerve-wracking!'"

Some freshmen were asked why they were at college since they never went to class. Honour walked out knowing he had to catch up on Greek, fast. Fleming's tutors said nice things, she said, and talked about ways she could challenge herself even more; much more useful than a letter grade, she said. Looking back on high school, it seemed like she had spent so much time honing a skill -- test-taking -- that she no longer needed or valued.

"It's odd that these standards get imposed, what everyone should know," she said. "I feel like that's what we're trying to figure out -- what is it that's worth knowing?"

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