Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Today's Valentine rituals

I'm Sherman Dorn, an associate professor of social foundations at the University of South Florida, in Tampa.

February 14 is one of those days of sentimental ritual in schools—the stuffing of semi-stale sugar candies into fragile envelopes, the circulation of valentines, and high-stakes test prep. Only two of those are well-remembered by today's older adults. But this afternoon, my children will explain to me not only about the hearts won and lost that day but what they consider to be boring sample tests and hints about how to score high [sic].

There is no real instructional value in the circulation of sugar hearts with BE MINE and YOU'RE SWEET stamped on one side. They're ritual glue, a comforting fiction that schools connect some imaginary community, whose members share a set of values and for whom these small rituals promise ... well, something. Friendship. Togetherness. Common purpose.

There is also no real instructional value in the preparation for high-stakes tests that are now our annual regimens from grades 3-8 (3-10 in Florida). We can disagree about the purposes of testing for accountability, but I don't think there's any question that the type of extensive, hours-long test prep that teaches a third-grader how to fill in bubbles, how to cross out wrong answers, how to "beat" a test is simply an abandonment of educational responsibility.
I disagree with much that Tom Fisher, the former head of Florida's testing program, holds in terms of the value of high-stakes testing. But we both think that extensive test-prep is simply obscene.

In some places and ways, test-prep has real results (higher test scores) with real consequences for adults in the system. In others, it is the educational equivalent of holding a rabbit's foot: good luck, superstition, hope for some good outcome. But test prep for the purposes just of higher scores has no benefit for students who are being cheated of real instruction in reading, science, math, history, music, art, etc.

When this madness hit Florida schools some years ago, and my older child hit the lower grades of testing, I carefully explained that some things that went by the name of test prep were really relabeled lessons, identified as FCAT to satisfy parents who did care about the test results for their individual children. I usually said, "I don't care if it says FCAT at the top; did you learn something?"

But as the years have gone by, the school system here in my neck of Florida has spent more money and time on test-prep. It is a waste of time and resources, and it is an abuse of my children and their peers. Like the exchange of valentines, it is a late-winter ritual full of anxiety for students with little real meaning. And worst of all, it is all too rational for the adults in the system.

1 comment:

Craig A. Cunningham said...

Yes, the test prep is oppressive. And it affects the poorest kids, in the worst schools, the most. Rich kids in good schools continue to learn real content; poor kids get drilled in how to respond to pre-concieved academic puzzles.

I believe that one reason NCLB has been so popular is that it helps prevent populist movements from fomenting in inner-city and poor rural schools. What would happen if teachers and students were freed to learn about what really concerns them, and their communities????!?