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Test-Driven Teaching Isn't Character-Driven
Published on Wednesday, June 7, 2006 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
Test-Driven Teaching Isn't Character-Driven
No Child Left Untested is politicians' answer to better education. What about better people?
by Colman McCarthy
 

No group is enjoying a greater high right now than the nation's testocrats, as students across the land finish up another year of test-driven education. These children, frightened by the fear of failure, are using their minds not to think but to perform.

For whom? Aside from the profit-hungry testing industry, it's mainly for politicians whose notion of No Child Left Untested is their answer to the latest report that all those well-drilled Japanese and Chinese kids are years ahead of America's slackers. Perform well on the tests, goes the meritocratic message, and all rungs on the ladder to success will be easily climbed.

Having taught in high schools for 25 years, I have seen no evidence that mastering tests helps students become kinder, more loving, or more adventuresome. Often, it's the opposite. Preparing for Advance Placement or International Baccalaureate tests, they become idea- and fact-memorizers, not idea- and fact-analyzers. Fearful of not doing well, students give in to anxiety. Cowed, they obsess over grades - and ignore Walker Percy's irrefutable truth that you can make all A's in school and go flunk life.

High school students who instinctively protest tests become spiritual dropouts, showing up for school physically but thinking their own thoughts, while test-giving teachers prattle on about what to study for the next Big One.

Having taught courses on nonviolence to more than 7,000 high school, college and law school students since 1982, as well as lecturing at hundreds of schools from the nation's wealthiest to its poorest, I have seen enough to know that, too often, test-happy schools are merely processing the young like slabs of cheese going to Velveeta Elementary on the way to Cheddar High and Mozzarella U.

Carol Rinzler describes it in Your Adolescent: An Owner's Manual:

Little Kimberly asks her high-achieving parents: "If they tell you in nursery school that you have to work hard so that you'll do well in kindergarten, and if they tell you in kindergarten that you have to work hard so you'll do well in high school, and if they tell you in high school that you'll have to work hard so you'll get into a good college, and assuming they tell you in college that you have to work hard so you get into a good graduate school, what do they tell you in graduate school that you have to work hard for?"

Mom and Dad tell Kimberly: "To get a good job so you can make enough money to send your children to a good nursery school."

Tests represent fear-based learning, not desire-based learning. As a pacifist, I see tests as forms of academic violence. I have never insulted my high school students by giving them exams.

Instead, I give my students plenty of quizzes, starting with character-driven questions. When did you last thank the school's janitors for keeping the toilets clean? How often do you express appreciation to the cafeteria workers for cooking the food every day? How often do you tell someone that you love them? And show them with deeds? Have you done a favor recently for someone who didn't even know you did it? Are you a talker or a doer? Are you a person who is self-centered or other-centered? What are you doing to make your parents' lives a bit easier? Are you living simply so others may simply live?

I'd rather have a class full of students who are mindful of what matters, rather than a class of students with minds full of what least matters: how to get ahead by acing tests. America has enough brainy people ready to serve the interests of the ruling elite, but not enough caring people to challenge its materialism and militarism.

When I asked some of my students recently whether they were better people for having taken their AP and IB tests in other classes, none answered yes. Most said they were frazzled. Some believed they had been conned into thinking the tests mattered. A few, indeed, were glad they took the tests. For them, it's now on to Mozzarella U. to strive for 4.0s, and seek out Kimberly as a best study pal.

Colman McCarthy (cmccarthy@starpower.net) is director of the Center for Teaching Peace, in Washington.

© 2006 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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