Our testing society – what is wrong with us?

23 Oct

 Standardized test

Recently, I read an opinion by James Atlas, published in the New York Times, about Super People.  He commented on the amazing qualities of the winners of a fellowship to study abroad. He states: “…there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this list who hasn’t mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.” He also quotes a chairman of a college admissions program, who said: “We see kids who’ve been training from an early age… The bar has been set higher. You have to be at the top of the pile.” Somehow, our system has been set up so that parents believe that, in order for there kids to be at the top of this pile, their kids have to jump through countless hoops from a very early age.

We are part of an education system where testing is used to determine placement, admission to a specific program or school, and whether a  student qualifies for aid. The practice of testing students for admission has always had its critics, but in recent years the criticism has escalated. Yet, a lot of parents knowingly participate in this mad competition for placement, because getting admitted to a prestigious school, gives a major boost to a student’s chances of future academic success.

Through the years, I have read numerous accounts of ridiculous testing and placement practices. There are public outcries against these practices, but yet these practices persist and a booming industry of testing, tutoring and coaching supports these practices. Earlier this year, I read in the Chicago Tribune about parents in Chicago who were hiring tutors to help their preschoolers prepare for selective-enrolment exams. There were 3337 applications for 500 places in the public school’s classical and gifted kindergarten programs. And then there is the extremely competitive New York schools, where kids of 3 and 4 years old are tested for placement in preschools. According to the New York Times, in 2009 parents were paying up to $145 per session for private tutoring to prepare their children for these tests. This particular article quotes a school director of admissions who said “It’s unethical [to tutor children before the test]. It completely negates the reason for giving the test, which is to provide a snapshot of their aptitudes, and it doesn’t correlate with their future success in school.” Excuse me?? Isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? It is surely highly unethical to test 3 and 4 year olds on standardized measurements for entry into any kind of program.

Please do not forget that standardized tests “reward the ability to quickly answer superficial questions that do not require real thought”  ( http://www.fairtest.org/k-12) . The younger the test subject, the more unreliable the test scores and the more variable the results will be from one day to the next. And the dubious practice of IQ testing has had its critics for years – psychologists are not even in agreement on what the term ‘intelligence’ actually refers to. Just this week, new research showed that the brains of adolescents could show huge differences in IQ scores when tested and retested a few years apart.

Overzealous parents even have the opportunity to buy books like this one, giving parents advice on how to prepare your child for the admissions test.

In England and in Northern Ireland, the practice of testing students for placement in Grammar Schools, have the same bizarre effect on parents. There is an enormous industry of tutors and coaches, asking up to €5000 per year to prep students for these exams. Some students study for six hours every day. Parents remortgage their properties and secure loans to be able to afford private tutoring. Students write these exams in their last year of primary school, but some parents start tutoring sessions when their children are as young as 3 years old. Depending on the school district, up to 20 students can compete for every grammar school place. Some children are not even allowed birthday parties, sleepovers or holidays in the year before this test (called the 11-Plus exam).

We see this competition for placement continue after high school, where college admission rates have dropped to an all-time low. At Harvard University, only 6.3% of the 35000 hopeful applicants will get admission, with Columbia, Stanford, Yale and Princeton’s admission rates at 6.92%, 7.1%, 7.4% and 8.4% respectively. Admission boards are presented with the dilemma of countless of worthy applicants who have to be turned away.

Why then do parents willingly subject their children to this? The answer is obvious: Graduates from these elite institutions could well see doors to Ivy League schools opening. In some schools, 1 out of 3 students will be accepted in an Ivy League school. But what is the price parents expect their children to pay?

Are children supposed to sit with tutors and study irrelevant facts instead of learning through play? What is the personal value added to a child’s life by forcing him or her to study facts and methods that will help him or her pass a test? What could the child have been doing instead of studying? In other words, what is the child loosing in his parents’ effort to gain academic success? Shouldn’t parents rather be teaching and modelling life skills?

I guess there is not an easy answer. We all want our children to succeed and we would ideally like them to have the best opportunities that life can give them. We also want our children to be happy, creative, independent thinkers. I question this system  where creativity and independent thought are not valued, and where parroting and rote learning are rewarded. Do we really want our children all to become Super People, and in the process risk loosing something important?









 Photo: Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/albertogp123/5843577306/


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