After reading aloud from an essay about the fast-food industry, I threw a typical softball question to the students of a UC Berkeley composition class:
"What's the argument of the paragraph?"
Written by a former student, the paragraph implied that a rise in American obesity is linked to increased dollars spent on fast food.
I called on a student. "Advertising?" she said, a word that appeared in the paragraph only once. Why did this student, a hard-working athlete, so badly misread the paragraph? Because instead of really interpreting the passage, she used a little clue. "Advertising" had been mentioned in the thesis just a paragraph earlier.
Unfortunately, strategies such as hers aren't uncommon in the college classroom. Within the same lesson, another student made quick assumptions about a sentence's meaning because of its first words. My colleagues and I often swap stories like these, in which our students use faulty shorthand in place of critical thinking.
We teach students who didn't pass the Analytical Writing Placement Exam, and our task is often to undo these habits so students can learn how to really, truly read. By the end of the semester, students often report that they learned more in one semester than in four years of high school. But many of them don't pass their first essays. At first, they're shocked that skills they used in high school now won't earn them passing grades.
It's hard, though, to fault the students. They're employing test-taking strategies they've learned all their No-Child-Left-Behind lives. When standardized test scores come attached with high stakes, teachers are forced to arm their students with speedy decoding in lieu of critical thinking. Unfortunately, such teaching will only be perpetuated under the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.
I started my teaching career in Teach for America, which places teachers in low-income schools, during the dawn of No Child Left Behind. Faced with tests that could determine whether our students graduated, my panicked administrators encouraged me to teach tricks. "If a writing prompt is three questions long," my department head told me, "make students turn each question into a statement. Statements should become topic sentences." If the students followed the format, the essays would read like a series of nearly identical paper dolls. Passing paper dolls.
Under such pressures, students can't be prepared for college-level work. As Diane Ravitch recently wrote, "ACT found that more than three-quarters of this year's graduates - who were in fifth grade when NCLB was passed - are not ready for college-level studies." Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush, was once a champion of No Child Left Behind. In her recent book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," she writes, "I started to see the danger of the culture of testing that was spreading through every school, community, town, city, and state."
By requiring states to evaluate teachers based on test scores, Race to the Top will only promote "the culture of testing." It will encourage teachers to emphasize low-level skills rather than true learning, which will only exacerbate the struggles of underprepared college students. The sooner we rid these tests of unneeded high stakes, the sooner our teachers can emphasize the truth: that real reading, writing and learning is messy, and no shorthand tricks will do.