America's Dumbest Idea: Creating a Multiple-Choice Test Generation

Standardized testing means more rote memorization and less time for creativity. Students aren't prepared for college and life

A few years ago, I met with my former high school social studies teacher to catch up over drinks. "Miss F" was one of my favorite teachers and we hadn't seen each other in about 12 years. As we reminisced about our field trips, my other classmates, and my hilariously unfortunate fashion choices, she revealed to me that she and many of my former high school teachers refer to that time as "the golden era". I was shocked. How could it be that the school district had become worse since I graduated?

My high school, which is located in a working class Latino suburb bordering Chicago, was overpopulated, underfunded, and in my opinion, incredibly stifling. Needless to say, I resented going there. I felt we were disenfranchised and were not given the same opportunities that affluent schools provided their students.

I should have realized how lucky I really was when I was in college, however. Unlike many of my classmates, I cranked out papers with little difficulty because I knew how to synthesize information and formulate an argument. Writing a thesis statement was a freaking breeze. But at the time I had no idea that these skills were a luxury.

It wasn't until I reunited with my teacher that I realized I actually received a decent education compared to many students today. I had several talented and passionate teachers who had not been entirely bogged down by a bunch of inane educational requirements. No Child Left Behind hadn't completely ruined our already failing education system. My teachers taught me how to analyze and question texts and write thesis statements. I was taught the symbolism of the Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn. I was taken on after school field trips to movies, poetry readings, and plays. Some of them even encouraged me to question authority. If it weren't for some of these teachers, I never would have become a writer.

But that has all changed now. According to my teacher, budget cuts have made field trips nearly impossible. Not only that, teachers are now so bogged down by administrative nonsense and standardized testing requirements, that it's very difficult to teach children anything but the rote memorization of information. I hear complaints like these all the time from my friends and family members who are teachers. While they are passionate about what they do, they are not given the agency or resources to flourish and engage their students in higher levels of discourse.

One of my family members is a teacher at our former high school and he is frequently exasperated by the efforts devoted to standardized testing. He says:

With so much riding on these exams, schools try to get kids enthused by even having test pep-rallies, assemblies, and programs to promote test-taking strategies and to underscore the tests' importance. This is how the love of learning is being cultivated? This is how we encourage intellectual curiosity?

No Child Left Behind, which was passed in 2001, mandated that states use test scores to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing. Unfortunately, this emphasis on testing had dire consequences. Even initial supporters, such as Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant secretary of education in George Bush senior's administration, realized how detrimental these measures were. She wrote in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else ... This was not my vision of good education.

And Ravitch doesn't believe that Common Core is the solution to this crisis in education either. Now all states must adopt Common Core or similar standards approved by state higher education officials if they want to receive federal waivers from No Child Left Behind. Ravitch feels that these new standards are being imposed on children with little evidence of how they will affect students, teachers, or schools.

"I only see it getting worse", says one of my friends, a fourth grade teacher in Chicago. "Common Core standards have been added to our Illinois testing now, which are much, much more challenging standards. This means learning a whole new test for the teachers and students." Not only are these requirements causing a lot of stress, she says that the materials for the tests are also very expensive. A report from Truthout has outlined Common Core's various corporate connections. Clearly the objective is profit, not a rigorous and nuanced education that will benefit students in the long run.

Why does our education system insist on these kinds of methods when they're clearly not working? Why not emulate Finland, a country with no standardized tests and whose teachers assign less homework and encourage creativity? Finnish students have been turning in some of the highest test scores in the world in the last few years.

Whether it be No Child Left Behind or Common Core, the problem lies in manufactured learning. In teaching English at the university level, I have noticed that students are often ill prepared for the demands of higher education. Students who are used to multiple choice tests lack the skills and the confidence to formulate their own complex opinions and interpretations. It is irresponsible to have these students graduate without the proper skills to succeed.

Rigid curriculums that focus on right and wrong answers teach children to see the world in binaries. These methods don't encourage creativity or innovation. I fear that our deeply flawed education system will produce generations of people who lack critical thinking skills. How can students be expected to become highly skilled or passionate about anything when they're asked to simply regurgitate information? What kind of choices will they make in their adult lives when they have never been taught how to look at the nuances and complexities of situations? Who will have the tools to question authority? Who will question the status quo? How will we compete with other countries when our younger generations have not been encouraged to develop their inquisitiveness and engage with the world?

I fear that our system is failing children by encouraging them to be mindless consumers. High tests scores do not make someone well-educated or well-rounded and memorizing facts does not equal intelligence. Public education should not be a commodity, but a foundation for children to at least have the possibility of succeeding in the world.

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