"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Making Kids Dumb

Here is a piece this morning in the Charlotte Observer from a parent counting the days until her child graduates from the test factory:

Posted on Tue, Oct. 25, 2005

Standardized testing dumbs down education
Today's over-tested students lack genuine spirit of inquiry
Special to the Observer

One hundred forty. If I have figured correctly, that is how many school days remain until my youngest child graduates from high school. The event will not come soon enough.

My anticipation has nothing to do with the excitement of seeing my child receive his diploma; it has everything to do with the fatigue of having children who attended public schools.

Since my oldest child enrolled in kindergarten in 1986, public education has beentransformed -- and not for the better. The major change that has frustrated me is the creation of a test-focused culture in the classroom. Teachers teach a test, not a subject. In-service training provides strategies to help students improve test scores. Precious instructional time is co-opted by teaching test-taking skills, and by giving benchmark and practice tests to keep students from freezing at the "main event."

Critical thinking skills decline

Based on my experiences as a college professor, test-taking has decreased critical thinking skills. I have seen a marked decline in reading comprehension and writing performance in my students. This is a notable difference from those I taught from 1981 until 1995. Students from these earlier years were not trained to take a test, and it showed. They exhibited problem-solving skills, creative thinking and that indefinable something we like to call "Yankee ingenuity."Today's students are products of intensive testing. They remind me of Pavlov's dogs. Tell them
something will be on the test, and a bell rings in their heads. Tell them they are not responsible for certain material, and they tune out. There is no genuinespirit of inquiry, no interest in figuring out why something did or did not work. Describing their writing skills as "atrocious" is an understatement -- and these are the students who had to pass multiple writing tests in order to graduate high school.

Lifelong learning can be taught

I reflect on my own, unique public education, and wonder why those concepts were not transformed into a nationwide educational system. I attended a public school whose principal had been trained in Austria. She did not believe in children skipping grades, because, as she put it, "it left holes in their education." Instead, she developed a program for academically gifted youngsters that kept us within our grade level for non-academic subjects, but exposed us to more challenging work in the traditional academic areas of social studies, language arts, math and science.

Her far-sightedness led to the development of a system-wide program, implemented in the seventh through 12th grades in Pittsburgh, Pa., called the Scholars' Program.

I learned how to conduct library research by doing special projects. Our work required us to present our material to the class, write concisely and develop informed opinions. In short, I developed the skills of a lifelong learner. I doubt I would get the same type of education today, because of the constraints dictated by the schools' intensive testing environment. However, the emphasis on excellence in performance carries across all student ability levels.

Less publicized is the impact testing is having on the high school dropout rate.

My son started ninth grade with a high school class of more than 300 students. His class size at the end of 11th grade stood at 266: an approximate 12 percent dropout rate.

Anecdotal evidence, gleaned from a dropout prevention committee on which I serve, tells us that students who fail their 10th grade end-of-course tests refuse to repeat that grade. Discouraged and no longer legally required to attend school, they quit.

Boys are left behind

Today's pro-female, anti-male educational bias, described two weeks ago on this page by David Brooks, is also a product of the schools' standardized testing environment. What Brooks did not touch on, but bears mentioning, is that a test-focused curriculum emphasizes cognitive learning over other types of learning, such as kinesthetic (motion), tactile (touch), and visual and artistic
(music, arts, drama).

Educator [Howard] Gardner has developed a methodology that identifies 13 different intelligences. Education students cover Gardner's schema in their methods classes. However, once teachers hit the classroom, they find that an emphasis on achieving high test scores reduces the chances of fully implementing Gardner's outstanding approach to organizing and presenting new concepts to students from a multiplicity of approaches -- an approach that would resonate
with boys and non-traditional learners.

No one wants to admit that testing has forced us to dumb down education and eliminated the initiative for young people to excel beyond a test score. But that is indeed what has taken place. Test scores only tell one part of the story of a person's capabilities. A high school principal once told me, "You don't grow the cow by weighing it." It's time to put away the scales and start improving the nutritional content of the feed. I only wish we could start within the next 140 days.

Observer community columnist Annette Dunlap of Lakeview is a small business consultant and free-lance writer. Write her c/o The Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308, or at annette_d2002@yahoo.com

© 2005 Charlotte Observer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Ahhh, a small-business consultant and freelance writer. Just the kind of expert credentials I'd expect from someone who can identify with certainty these trends in education--based of course on anecdotal evidence.

  2. I helped publish a website about writing skills and learned in the process about the importance of doing good research. One major problem the U.S. education system needs to address is the skewed emphasis on test-taking skills rather than on writing skills.

  3. Anonymous8:38 PM

    Obviously, I agree 100%. And quite enthusiastically, too. If only more people were willing to admit to this, or, by an even bigger stretch of the imagination, actually do something about it!!! I stumbled upon this article while searching for a website to help me study for the Civics & Economics EOC. This is one of a series of tests that take place at the end of each semester of high school. I am preparing for my first (FOUR) ever, and, lucky me, I won't be done for the next 3 1/2 loooong years. The pressure is so great I think I may implode, the heap of letters and numbers we have to memorize absolutely epic. You see, the things we must learn to prepare have, as you said, become no more than words and numbers on a page- albeit very important words and numbers. You know, kind of like the way all of us are no more than statistics on a page to whoever runs this. It's truly overwhelming. But we have to do this. It's of the utmost importance, as apparently this test will measure all of my potential as a person and decide whether I end up living in a box on the streets or living the American dream. If you don't pass, you are a failure at life.
    And so this has been nice to read. I've been searching for this website for a while now and will probably have to settle for something else. This was given to us a while ago by our teacher. She told us that she could moniter our accounts on the website, and she'd know how much we reviewed to prepare for judgement day. I used the website and it was pretty helpful- it got information shoved down my throat, after all. Unfortunately, she failed to provide us with an actual adress so we could access to website later. So I'd better get back to it. UGH.