Friday, September 26, 2014

Standardized tests, the death knell of American economic dominance?

By Robert Vian, School District #171 Superintendent

The current debate about Idaho Common Core and the change from Idaho Academic Standards Test (ISAT) is the wrong debate. While Common Core tests will require much more rigor in the classroom and are far superior to the old standards, they are just another standardized test. We should be discussing the impact of standardized tests on America’s ability to produce creative resourceful, imaginative, and talented individuals that will be needed for the nation to continue our dominant status in the world as an economic power.

A couple of historically significant events have created the slippery slope that education in Idaho and the nation attempts to stand upon.

The first was the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s and the launch of the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union in 1957. The U.S. suffered apoplectic shock, “How was a communist nation able to best a technological superpower like the U.S. in the race to be first into space?” When the Soviets also had the first man in space the sting was even deeper.

Politicians and educational experts started looking for explanations to describe the “failures in education.” Surveys of educational systems in industrialized nations in 1960 indicated that the U.S. math student ranked 12th in the world. No wonder we lost the “space race,” we were sliding into oblivion, how could the U.S. be a world power with math scores like that?

A second partially related event fueled the slide. Educational funding was erratic, while some schools had rich tax bases, others were not so wealthy. Educational advocates started campaigning for a level field (read this to mean equal funding) for all students within a state and across the nation.

When the Feds and the state began providing funds to equalize educational opportunities they started taking away local control of schools and demanded that funds were being spent wisely. Testing students to see if they had learned just made sense, but the tests had to be standardized to allow comparisons between schools and districts across the state. Every student had to be measured by the same standard, like a toaster or television set.

Producing a student capable of passing a standardized test, lead to standardized curriculums, not identical but highly similar. To insure that students were doing well in math, reading, and language arts, those subjects required more classroom instruction. States added additional math and science requirements. Districts had to add additional math and science teachers. With no new money other teachers (art, music, languages, drama, technology, and industrial arts classes) had to be cut. The classes that many students find interesting and the open doors for their individual futures are closed as schools prepare every student to attend a university.

In the U.S. we began chasing the great standardized test, taking nations like Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, Switzerland, and Japan, trying to create an educational system as “fine as theirs.” In Idaho we started mimicking other states. What did the standardization and emphasis on math and science for all students accomplish?

The U.S. student currently ranks 31st in math, and 24th in science. My mom told me that “once the horse dies I should quit beating it and get off.” Instead we are hell bent on bringing the horse back to life with cattle prods and training wheels.

While many shudder at the thought that we cannot compete with other nations on tests, we should consider what makes us the industrial leader of the world by a wide margin, and what those countries gave up to test well. In China two-year-olds start preparation for a college entrance exam sixteen years away. No country in the world focuses on all their students like the U.S. does. We test over 95% of our children. They test only their best.

China has 19% of the world’s population and each year applies for one percent of the world patents. China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the market value of all final goods and services from a nation in a given year, is 50% of the U.S. GDP. The U.S. Gross Domestic Product accounts for 22% of the world’s total GDP despite the fact that the U.S. population is only 4.3% of the total world population. If China produced at the rate the U.S. does, their GDP would be four and a half times the U.S. GDP, not one half our GDP.

We are chasing the wrong goal, and seem to be more obsessed every day with achieving that wrong goal.

Education should be about the maintaining our identity as a nation, raising children to continue our dream of a country where each generation is at least as well off as the past.

Training our youth to all be the same ignores what makes this nation the industrial leader of the world. Our creativity, perseverance, resourcefulness, diversity, and imagination is what makes us a great industrial power.

Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair for Global and online Education at the University of Oregon writes in his new book World Class Learners that in the U.S. at age five 98% of the kids tested are at the genius level “for creativity,” by age ten 32% reach the genius level, and by age 15 only 10% still score at the genius level. The number actually declines to about 4% during the work years (if I get creative I may lose this job). At about age 65, when people start doing things they like to do, the genius level increases, and some people become creative again. It’s hard to argue that we are encouraging creativity in schools or the workplace. It appears we are doing an outstanding job of destroying creativity.

The modern public school has become a sausage grinder, taking a young person’s creativity, diversity, resourcefulness, perseverance, imagination, and talent and turn out one product where all of the product is exactly like all the other products.

Other nations are now looking at the U.S. to see how we develop such creative students. How can they develop a Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Wozniak? Steve Wozniak said, “When you’re very structured almost like a religion…Uniforms, uniforms, uniforms…everybody is the same.” Look at structured societies like Singapore, where bad behavior isn’t tolerated. You are extremely punished. Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great singers? Where are the great writers? Where are the athletes? All the creative elements seems to disappear.

The Chinese are not ignorant or satisfied with the outcomes of their test oriented system.

The Chinese Ministry of Education wrote in 1997, “Our nation’s tendency to simply prepare for tests,…and blindly pursue admission rates to colleges and higher-level schools while ignoring the real needs of the student and societal development…pays attention to only a minority of the student population and neglects the majority; it emphasizes knowledge transmission…as well as the cultivation of applied abilities and psychological and emotional development; it relies on rote memorization and mechanical drills…Which makes learning uninteresting, hinders students…and prevents them from taking initiatives…hurting motivation and enthusiasm, squelching their creativity, and impeding their overall development.”

It sounds like they have learned what we have not, standardization stifles creativity. Other nations study the U.S. educational system because they think we know how to foster creativity, the reality is more likely that we have not progressed to their level of destroying creativity, yet.

We should demand that the educational system stop trying to produce cookie cutter students. A world class educational system should start with the student, consider their strengths and weakness, help them build on their weakness, but focus on their strengths. Rather than a funnel into the sausage grinder, education should be inverted so that a student’s creativity, imagination, and perseverance expands and grows with support from educators.

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