Monday, September 1, 2008

Testing, testing

One of the things that seems to surprise people about homeschooling in Illinois is that our children don't have to be tested. For the past year, if someone mentions standardized testing to me, they get to hear the story of Plagiarism Girl, a student in my freshman speech class in the fall of 2007.

PG was a graduate of the Chicago Public Schools. She screwed up every single assignment all semester. For one of her speeches, she read seven minutes, word for word, from a website and did not understand why that was wrong. I spent an hour with this girl explaining to her in every way imaginable why she could not read from someone's website. She thought that she was not guilty of plagiarism since she said, "According to ..." at the beginning. When I said that would have been okay for quoting a sentence or two, she said, "Well, it was his biography." So what? For an hour, I explained plagiarism, fair use, copyright laws, and everything else I could think of that was remotely related. PG truly had no understanding that she had done anything wrong.

On the assignment prior to this one, she was supposed to watch a presidential tv ad from and write a short paper that connected the ad to a communication concept we'd studied in class, such as ethics of communication. I could not figure out which ad or which concept her paper was about. Ultimately, I discovered that PG hadn't watched an ad -- she had merely summarized the introductory material about the Bush vs. Clinton race. She wrote that everyone was blaming Clinton for the bad economy and that people hid signs in the Clinton campaign headquarters saying, "It's the economy, stupid." I asked her how the whole country could have been blaming Clinton (the governor of Arkansas) for the bad economy, and she said she didn't know. I asked her if she knew what the word, "conspicuous" meant, and she didn't know. Based on what she wrote, it looked like she thought it meant "hidden." The website actually said that signs were posted conspicuously around the headquarters.

The other stories get more complicated, but the bottom line is that PG was completely incapable of critical thinking. The most shocking thing about this story to most people is that this girl passed my class. How on earth could she have passed when she blew every single assignment, every paper, and every speech? She passed the tests, which were multiple choice. When she had a limited number of options available, she could choose the right answer most of the time. But life is not a multiple choice test. Life is filled with open-ended questions. Children need to learn how to think -- not take multiple choice tests.

Last week, I started my third year of teaching a freshman-level college class. The college requires that students have a mid-term and a final exam in this class, which is required for all students. Most professors use multiple choice because it's easier to grade. Students respond on forms that can be computer graded, which is quick and easy. All standardized tests are multiple choice, and those tests are the way we decide whether or not the schools are doing their jobs. While PG's story is very dramatic, she is not the only student I've had who is completely incapable of critical thinking. The majority of students cannot critically think.

One problem that happens over and over again ... When we talk about research, I have students look at some websites and tell me why they are or are not legitimate. Many students visit and say that it's legitimate because it's a dot-org site, and all of those are credible. The funny thing about that site is that every single word is true. The site is maintained by a man who thinks that we need better critical thinkers, and it shows how you can make something sound really bad -- without ever telling a lie.

On the flip side, I've had some students tell me that no dot-com site can be trusted because they're all just trying to sell something. These kids are NOT critical thinkers. They view life as a series of multiple choice tests. Dot-org is true; dot-com is false. When asked to visit this site on male pregnancy, I tell them to pretend they are from another planet and don't know that men can't get pregnant. Then tell me how you know this site is not legitimate. The majority of students can't figure it out and admit that if they were an alien, they would find the site credible. My point is that throughout their lives they will be looking on the Internet for information, and they will be looking for information because they are like that alien -- they don't know which information is right or wrong, so they need to be able to evaluate the source.

Schools worked great in the 19th century when the country was moving into the industrial age, when our biggest need was for good little worker bees in the factories. Today is a completely different world though, and we need people who can think and solve problems. Kids don't learn that stuff through multiple choice tests.

1 comment:

Jena said...

wow, great post. I love how your experience makes such good points for alternative education!