Virginia's _____ Tests (Answer: Flawed)

Lexington, Va.
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Arne Duncan, President Obama's education secretary, says he wants nationwide input on ways to improve the No Child Left Behind Act. If so, he should heed a lesson from Sarah Palin and the state of Virginia.

Each winter, school districts throughout Virginia issue flashcards to elementary school students with a somewhat silly title, "Race to the Governor's House." Children bring home pastel cards tucked into Ziploc bags, and parents are asked to quiz their kids for upcoming standardized tests. This year I would have avoided the flashcards, except that my third-grader dropped them into my lap as I lay reading in bed.

The first question embodied a key problem in our nation's standardized testing: an unhealthy emphasis on memorization of arbitrary facts: "What is the act of giving or doing something?" the flashcard inquired. As an English professor, I can list 15 correct answers. My child recited the one noun that all little Virginians must memorize: "contribution."

I was glad to see the flashcards dwindling when one question stood out: "What country was home to several great empires?" Hmmm. . . . Turkey? Iran?

My daughter declared boldly: "Africa."

"No," I replied. "Africa is a continent."

Then I flipped the card, and there was its answer, staring me in the face: "Africa." At which point I bolted upright in bed, shouting, "No way!"

Having watched the media excoriate Sarah Palin for apparently referring to Africa as a country, it was shocking to find Virginia's schools propagating the same error. Things got worse when my daughter brought home a flashcard-based test containing the flawed question with her answer: Africa.

"Why did you write 'Africa,' " I asked, "when I told you it wasn't a country?"

"It's what they wanted," she replied.

Therein lies the danger of a test-prep culture gone awry. Although my daughter attends a strong school with excellent teachers, more than 80 percent of the curriculum is state-mandated, and as one teacher recently lamented: "Don't let anyone tell you we don't teach to the test. We absolutely teach to the test."

The consequences are especially evident in social studies. Although NCLB covers reading and math, Virginia's regimen includes everything from elementary economics to state history, requiring teachers to spend enormous time cramming trivia for multiple choice tests. This means less time for writing, thinking and reading stories -- all crucial to good history instruction. Virginia is not alone in its testing craze; each fall, freshmen from various states arrive at my office at Washington & Lee University well-trained in multiple choice but unable to compose an eloquent sentence, let alone an original thesis.

When my eldest daughter entered fifth grade, I home-schooled her for one year, just to escape the testing and accomplish nine months of writing across the curriculum. Now I wonder whether my youngest child will need a similar sabbatical to explore the creative writing, science experiments and global history her teachers confess they have little time for.

All educators value accountability, and few want to eliminate testing, but if our leaders want real education reform, they must balance rote memorization with methods that encourage independent thought, before more children are taught that Africa is a country.

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