Monday, July 9, 2012

A Fresh (personal) Perspective on Standardized Testing

In addition to working as a freelance musician, I've spent part of the past year since finishing graduate school as a substitute teacher at the middle school and high school level, teaching a little bit of everything: general music, band, orchestra, chorus, English, reading, social studies, Spanish, art, and special education.  After several months, I found that I actually enjoyed doing this (except for getting called at 6am to come in and teach at 7am).  I enjoyed the challenge of being a substitute teacher while not being a baby-sitter; trying to help the students learn something that will stick with them, or change the way they think about something, in only 50 minutes of class time.  I also enjoyed teaching outside of my academically trained area while drawing on my knowledge of all disciplines (I felt like I learned so much more from teaching middle school classes than from actually taking them as a kid).  I even subbed enough that I got to know some of the kids a little bit (some even started calling me "Professor Southard") and I understood how a full-time teacher could really come to enjoy getting to know the kids over the course of a whole year while making a real impact in their lives.

This positive experience was good enough that I decided to look into the requirements for obtaining a Massachusetts Teaching License for K-12 in Music.  From knowing plenty of friends who majored in Music Education in college, I assumed that I needed to do student teaching, take pedagogy classes, and other things which I hadn't done in order to get a license, but all I needed for a preliminary teaching license, in Massachusetts at least, was a Bachelor's degree and passing scores on the Music and Communication/Literacy tests.  The sample tests looked pretty easy to me, so, just to give myself more employment options in the future that I might enjoy, I decided to apply.

I went to the take the test having not taken a standardized test in probably at least 8 years, probably my last one being the SAT (where I was the last class of students where a perfect score was 1600, not 2400 as it is now).  Back in high school, I was much more interested in getting the highest score possible than paying attention and learning anything from the actual material.  This time, however, I found myself actually interested in the material and learning from the readings, not just in finding the "correct" multiple choice answer.  I found myself wanting to take my time and reflect on the readings even while the clock was ticking for me to answer their questions.  I even found myself critiquing how incredibly misleading a particular reading on population growth was, even though this critique had nothing to do with the multiple-choice questions.

The reading in question mentioned at the beginning how our global population has grown exponentially in recent decades and what a problem this is (and rightly so, as it probably is the biggest problem facing our world in the coming decades), yet it followed it by saying that the rate of global population growth is decreasing, and concluded with examples on how to reverse the problem of population decline.  But did you catch the mistake in their logic?  It is absolutely true that the rate of global population growth in in decline, but that does not necessarily mean that the world's population is in decline!  Far from it.  In 1962, the world's population grew at a rate of 2.19%, it's fastest rate in modern times, and grew to 3,136,082,730 (about 3.1 billion), an increase of 69,405,494 people (69.4 million).  In 1989, the growth rate had slowed to 1.66% and the global population reached 5,190,697,978 (about 5.2 billion [2.1 billion more than just 27 years ago!]) which was an increase of 87,027,432 people (about 87 million), the largest increase in one year ever.  Despite the slower growth rate in 1989 (1.66%<2.19%), this year saw an increase of more than 17 million people over 1962!  A slower growth rate, but more growth in terms of actual population.  Estimates are that by 2050, the growth rate will slow to less than .5% per year, yet we will still be adding more than 40 million in population per year and be nearing 10 billion people on our planet.  Yet if you had read this standardized test reading just looking to answer the multiple choice questions and didn't stop to use some common sense, you would have thought that the world was in danger of running out of people!

In the essay portion of the test, I found myself not wanting to simply give the answer I knew they were looking for, but to actually teach whoever might be reading and grading my test.  I wanted to show them something that they probably didn't know, because I found had it interesting.  I was learning from the material on the test, and I wanted them to learn from me as well.  Yet the test is designed for the taker to display his/her knowledge of the material that the testers deem important, to show off his/her knowledge and perhaps skills.  Yet, I couldn't help but think that this was all backwards.  Just like in music, showing off your skills and knowledge can win you praise, but the true art of performing and/or teaching is in sharing and being able to enable others to learn or experience something profound, beautiful, and life-changing.  Shouldn't that be the true test of one's teaching ability, to assess how well you can cause others to learn, not to show them that you already know something?

There was another reading on the test in particular that really interested me, which was a short biographical sketch of the life and impact of the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire (someone I'm bound to learn more about when I travel to Brazil on my Fulbright grant next year).  Freire espoused critical thinking in education and challenged the effectiveness the traditional view of education where a student is simply an empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge imparted by the teacher.  Of course, I deeply felt the irony of my situation, reading this as part of a standardized test.  I doubt Freire would have been happy to know he was in such a test.

No comments: