Life, Stories Told

Schools driven by standardized tests take all joy out of learning

I was in the third grade when Indiana’s standardized math and reading test, the ISTEP, was introduced in public schools. I remember parents expressing fears that these tests would be used to drive what was taught and to rate teachers and schools. I remember school officials swearing up one side and down the other that it would never happen. Yet before I graduated from high school, passing the test became a condition of graduation.

My sons are in public schools. Until a few years ago, when the ISTEP moved from the fall to the spring, they complained loud and long about how the first month of school was just review for the test. They hated the boring repetition of material they already knew well. Teachers and administrators do it because school funding and their own jobs and compensation depend on how well their kids perform on this test. If their school does poorly enough for long enough, the state will even take over the school and run it. Nobody wants that!

Every fear of those parents from 1975 was eventually realized, although it took more than 30 years to reach the bottom of this slope so slippery.

I don’t like what the ISTEP has done to education in Indiana, and wish it would disappear. And I gather that the story is the same nationwide, thanks to No Child Left Behind. It has had the effect of industrializing our schools, by which I mean using statistical analysis as the primary or even sole means of driving improvement. It’s human nature to optimize around what’s being measured, to the exclusion of all other factors that would bring fuller success. My experience has been that this leads to great mediocrity.

James Monroe School

The elementary school I attended

I hear more about homeschooling now than ever. 20 years ago, only kooks and religious fundamentalists taught their children at home, or at least that was the perception. It seemed like they were primarily trying to shield their kids from the big bad world. But now I know everyday families who homeschool.

Many of those homeschoolers use structured lessons, but a growing number of them are turning their backs on that and instead lean on the family’s everyday life experiences and their children’s natural curiosity to drive learning. It’s called unschooling, an axiom of which appears to be that kids hate school because lessons are forced onto them and because they are forced to sit quietly in place for long periods. Unschoolers claim that children naturally love learning and through active play and exploration will learn everything they need to know.

That makes some sense to me. I was a good student and a compliant child, the perfect fit for public school. But even I suffered considerable boredom (and sore bottoms from the hard, wooden chairs) during long lectures on dull subjects such as history. I hated history when I was in school. Plumb this blog’s archives and you’ll see that I now love history, and that love blossomed when I explored the past on my own terms.

I see this in my sons, too. My youngest, aged 14, has has become interested in animation and video production. He wrote, shot with his camcorder, and edited a movie last year, starring plush toys of characters from the Angry Birds video game. And he has made short stop-motion animations by taking successive still photos of posed Lego toys, which he strung together in Windows Movie Maker. He makes short hand-drawn animations in Flipnote Studio on his Nintendo DS and shares them with other kids in a common online space there. For his last birthday, he asked for a Wacom drawing tablet and Flash CS6 so he could make sophisticated animations. He’s struggling to learn those tools, but he’s still trying. All of his trying has been self-motivated and at his own pace.

Schools, of course, have to structure learning and discipline. When you gather hundreds or thousands of children into a building, with one adult to every 20 or 30 children, it’s the only way to avoid total chaos.

My youngest son is reasonably bright but struggles with focus, organization, and attention. So he’s not quite as perfect of a fit for public school as I was. Now, his school has separate up and down staircases. I’ve visited the building; the staircases are wide enough to accommodate children going both directions. And the up staircases are usually not near the down staircases, so children have to go out of their way to use the proper staircase. My boy, who is fiercely independent with little tolerance for nonsense, decided to hell with it and began using whichever staircase was nearest by. Repeated infractions led to letters home and, finally, days of detention. I sat him down and explained: “There are 2,000 students in your building. Frankly, there are enough of you that you could overwhelm the adults. So they have rules that keep order. I agree with you that this one appears to be arbitrary and stupid. However, it is the rule. It is a hoop you need to jump through, and I expect you to jump through it. I expect you will always dislike it. I don’t blame you, actually. You keep right on disliking it, but you keep right on obeying it.”

I’ve had variations on this discussion with him over and over. He resisted learning his math facts in elementary school, declaring the exercise a waste of time. Given that I never learned my addition facts yet graduated from engineering school, I had a hard time arguing with him. And he struggled for several years with doing his homework. When I discovered the problem, he was handing in less than half of it. He said that it felt like needless busywork for him to do work in subjects he had already mastered.

Unschoolers claim that this stuff saps our kids’ innate love of learning and leads either to belligerence (which often gets medicated) or broken spirits (which often gets mistaken for successful compliance).

All of this really resonates with me. I want my sons to be free to explore on their own without being put into tiny spirit-limiting pigeonholes. Yet I hedge.

School No. 7 / Crooked Creek Elementary School

Original entrance arch at my sons’ elementary school

I got into advanced placement classes in high school. In the 10th and 11th grades, my math teacher was Eugene Hudson, and he changed my life. He encouraged me when I started writing computer programs, which led to my rewarding career in software development. I am eternally grateful to him.

Mr. Hudson also sparked a love of mathematics in me. He did it in a very unconventional way. In my day, Indiana sophomores all studied geometry. It was the geometry of Euclid, the geometry of the plane, and it took all year. Except Mr. Hudson moved quickly through the material, teaching it all to us before Christmas. We were, after all, among the brightest students in the school; he challenged us to keep up. But he knew that all of us were highly focused on maintaining our grade-point averages, so he removed a critical barrier that helped us relax and enjoy the learning journey: he set the grading scale at 70-100 being an A, 60-70 being a B, and on down from there. His class was no easy A; even on that scale, it took effort to earn a good grade from Mr. Hudson.

After we finished the state-mandated curriculum, Mr. Hudson produced stacks of old texts he had saved during his long teaching career. Using them, he began to teach us about non-Euclidian geometries, spherical and hyperbolic. He finished with a week or two to spare, so making it up as he went he extended those principles to teach us the geometry of a teardrop.

I found it all to be utterly fascinating. I had always been pretty good at mathematics and could usually calculate the right answers. But after this, I was in love with mathematics for its own sake, for the pure joy of exploring it. Eugene Hudson transmitted his love for mathematics to us, and it stuck with me. It was the climbing-the-mountain version of learning: we did it just because it was there; wasn’t it glorious? It was! And when I left high school for college, I continued my journey by majoring in mathematics.

Riley High School

My high schol, taken the year I graduated

The problem with letting kids find their own paths is that their limited perceptions offer little sense of the paths available to them. They know only the paths upon which they stumble – and those presented to them.

The things children find on their own must not be discounted or denigrated. My youngest son is interested in video production because he has found a community of kids making videos and uploading them online. It’s fun for him and he wants to be a part. Making and sharing videos may always be just a hobby that brings my boy some satisfaction. Or maybe this could lead to a career in TV or film production. Who knows. Whatever.

But to limit him to just the paths he stumbles upon would be a shame. So much else could yet captivate him were those subjects only introduced to him.

I almost certainly would never have fallen head over heels for mathematics were it not for Eugene Hudson and his buccaneer-teacher ways. His methods freed me to enjoy the ride and soak up all that great human minds had discovered about mathematics.

This, then, is the teacher’s great function: to introduce bodies of knowledge that hopefully will ignite a spark in some child. You can’t predict what those sparks will be. Only a handful in my geometry class were as enraptured as I was. For my other classmates, it might have been organic chemistry, or beat poetry, or local politics that lit their fire, had there been teachers able and willing to step off the state curriculum to teach these things.

Even if there are such teachers today, the current public education system gives them no room to wiggle. Eugene Hudson, who retired many years ago but is still with us, couldn’t do now what he did for me in the early 1980s. The clamps are down tight and curricula are set in stone. Children are shunted down the narrow path of a tightly controlled state minimum.

Schools constrained by tests like ISTEP provide little spark for young learners. It takes education in the wrong direction. No wonder homeschooling and even unschooling are gaining traction.

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16 thoughts on “Schools driven by standardized tests take all joy out of learning

  1. Beautifully articulated – thank you! I homeschooled for two years before I needed to go back to work (financial reasons), but I’m now getting set up so that I can go back to it if/when my kids’ experiences become any more joyless.

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    • Thanks for chiming in. I’m divorced and non-custodial so I couldn’t homeschool even if I wanted to. So I am trying very hard to just encourage the paths my sons are discovering for themselves. That’s why I went beyond the birthday budget this year for my son who wanted the drawing tablet and Flash.

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  2. Meg says:

    Republicans for Genda Ritz shared you blog piece on fb. I also graduated from Riley. It saddens me to see what has become of Riley and South Bend which I believe, in part, is directly correlated to the Bush administration’s passing of NCLB and further exasperated by the Obama administration’s education policies. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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    • Meg, proving once again that the world is small, Glenda Ritz taught at my sons’ elementary school here in Indianapolis, about a mile from my house.

      I wish I understood what led to education policies that place so much emphasis on standardized testing. It seemed wrong in 1975 and it has had such obvious negative effects over the years.

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  3. Eugene Hudson is one of my teacher heroes (though Mr. Koellner and Mr. Clayton, the chemistry and physics teachers, respectively, were pretty high up there). Is it a coincidence that I also have an engineering degree?

    I cannot really recall a teacher at Riley that I would call “bad,” and many, many that I considered to be outstanding. I felt like I got a top-notch education from Riley, and was able to effectively compete with my peers at two challenging universities based at least partially on the foundation laid for me at Riley.

    Now that I am a teacher educator, and have worked with K-12 teachers “in the field,” I still believe that most teachers are good teachers, but that they are much more shackled by rules and regulations, as you stated. They also have been burdened with the responsibilities of being surrogate parents by the government, being required to teach the students “values” and “character building,” sometimes in direct conflict to the values and character-building being taught at home.

    NCLB and all of this other legislation is utter crap because it is directed at the lowest students and the most talented students are the ones being left behind now. Many schools have had to get rid of AP classes like we had at Riley; funding for gifted and talented programs has been shunted to remedial help for the “most struggling students” and as a result, our talented kids are getting bored out of their minds and learning to hate “education” even if they have a natural love of learning.

    As a parent now, I made the decision to send my child to private school (she’s 4), not because the public school teachers are terrible or the public school system is terrible, but because the public school legislation is terrible. The costs are ridiculously exorbitant (her monthly tuition is more than both of our monthly car payments combined), but we are willing to pay it to get the most out of her educational experience for the next 14 years.

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    • My sons are fortunate that they go to a well-funded public school system, one of a tiny handful in the state. Advanced placement programs are still in place there, and a pretty full slate of interesting non-core classes are offered. My older son took a year-long introductory engineering course and a semester course on law. Not bad!

      I, too, feel like I got a great education in the South Bend public schools. I’m not close to them anymore, but in a city that has declined since we left it I have to believe the tax base isn’t there anymore to support the schools as in our day, which I fear would lead to a loss of the kinds of programs that boosted us.

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  4. As a public school teacher in Indiana who teaches primarily electives and tries to be to my students what your geometry teacher was to you, thank you for so eloquently expressing this viewpoint. I am fortunate that my school district is still operating under the rules that existed prior to the 2011 state legislature actions because we ratified our contract through 2015 prior to that vote. However, we are still feeling the pressures of the A-F grading system and our school being labeled “good” or “bad” solely through our test scores. As someone who had the grades and, dare I say it, the test scores to go into any career field I chose, I am a teacher because I had great teachers and because I love working with kids in fields that allow them the space and time to explore their passions. I got into teaching because I wanted to spark a love of journalism and theatre in students, but more and more, I am pressured to spend the majority of my time focusing on how to increase the scores on the English 10 ECA for the couple of classes of English I have to teach. Additionally, I seem to get most of the special ed sophomores placed in my English class because the office feels I’m “better with them.” This insures my test scores on that ECA never go above about 82 percent of my total English students passing the test the first time around (which is up from 65 percent at the school prior to my tenure there). I feel like a failure every time we get those results back in the spring because it is almost always only my special ed students who do not pass, even though I get most of them pretty close to the cut-off score, and most of mine do tend to pass it the second time they take it. The state doesn’t care that I had a student who started the year with me barely verbal, reading at about a fourth grade level and who couldn’t write three coherent sentences about the same topic, but by the end of the year was reading novels written at a junior-high level and could write three coherent paragraphs on a topic. They don’t want my evidence of his growth over the year because according to the state legislature, my expertise is not valid or trusted. All they care is that his growth was still not enough to pass the English 10 ECA, and that’s a black mark against me. I’ve taught 17 years in three different school districts, and this is the first year I’ve aggressively looked for jobs outside of public education because the effects of the legislation are demoralizing and devastating to our schools. I’m not the only veteran, excellent teacher who feels this way. One of the best teachers I know, the same age as me, is luckily debt-free and is actively socking away every penny he can save so he can take early retirement in seven years. A man who used to say he would probably die in his classroom has now made it a goal to retire at age 50 and seek other employment. That’s sad for him, sad for his students and sad for our state.

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    • In my midlife-crisis years I’ve had fantasies of giving up software development for teaching, but given the current public-school landscape I can see that it would send me postal within a semester. I’d want to emulate Eugene Hudson, you see, but would be limited in every way to just teaching whatever was prescribed. That would drive me crazy.

      I feel sorry for teachers today who are expected to essentially make up for the shortcomings of families and society, and to be measured entirely by one result rather than by the many ways a teacher can build student success.

      I predict that if this doesn’t end, that the best teachers will get out and those who could be the best teachers will never get in.

      (As a one-time copy editor, I felt your pain over the typo in your message. So I fixed it, and deleted your comment about it.)

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  5. I imagine that how this all came about would be an interesting study. I remember years ago there used to be stories about why Johnny can’t read all the time. I would guess it was a manufactured crisis that politicians and a lot of the public fell for. I think there is plenty of evidence that our schools were turning out educated students just fine before all the standardized test stuff came along.

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    • Sure, and they still are turning out educated students. It seems to be somewhat about making sure students at the lower end of the achievement scale don’t get overlooked, but it appears to be at the expense of students at the upper end of that scale. Measurements like the standardized test tend to force everyone toward the middle.

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  6. Hi Jim. I agree, why limit kids to what they might stumble on themselves? But it doesn’t have to be a teacher or professor that shows the way. Exposing kids to all sorts of different people doing different kinds of work is one of the freedoms we have as unschoolers. So I would call different places and arrange tours. I would take them to events, meetings, clubs, etc. Send them to friends’ homes to help them out for a while. Expose them to adults who are following their passion. Let them follow their own rabbit trails but slyly nudge them to new discoveries. Be a sounding board. Surround them with books and publications that give ideas. These are things *you* can do even though you’re not custodial.

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    • See, it’s those freedoms that make unschooling so seductive to me. I think my youngest son might flourish in an unschooling situation — or at least not in a structured school arrangement. I certainly do expose my sons to things, and some of them have “taken” to my thrill.

      A friend of mine e-mailed me about this article and pointed out that I got incredibly lucky to have landed in Mr. Hudson’s class. It was not necessarily that I attended public school that gave me that opportunity; it was slightly more than random chance, for most teachers aren’t Mr. Hudson.

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  7. Jim,
    Thank you for the blog entry that speaks VOLUMES about the turmoil teachers face now in public schools. After 18 years teaching in the public school, five in the IPS school district and 13 in a Indy suburb, I decided to pack it in three years ago to follow my own passion of photography. I miss the kids terribly, I miss starting a new novel and having in depth character discussions. I miss teaching Indiana History to my fourth graders and creating commercials as we “Journeyed Across Indiana”. I miss teaching multiplication of fractions:-) I miss singing the National Anthem. Every. Single. Day. If you ever run into a Mandel Kid one day ask them to sing it for you:-) I miss watching my kids taping their version of WKID…our news program that we broadcasted to the entire school. I miss cafeteria duty….I taught them two songs…The Oscar Meyer Song and The Burger King “Have it your Way”. I miss the talent show we would have at the end of the year…you can’t have too many first graders playing violins!! Almost everyone of these things have been CUT from the classroom due to lack of time, benchmark testing and administrative bull. I love my life now that I am not tied to a school schedule and can travel with my husband whenever I please. That is all great. But I miss it and in the last three years our district has lost a number of teachers who will tell you that education is no longer about a “love” of learning. It is completely about a score.

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  8. Lori Camp says:

    Jim-ISTEP wasn’t created until 1987-the tests we took were the IOWA test of basic skills. We (at least at Hamilton, a SBCSC) took them in 3rd and 6th grade. I still have my results, my mom kept them with my other “school” stuff.

    http://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/assessment/2013-08-19-chapter-1-istep-13-14.pdf

    It wasn’t until 1985 or so that this *ridiculous* standardized testing mania took hold and it seems especially strong in Indiana.

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    • Lori, I’m very confused. My memories seem crystal clear on this. I remember taking the Iowa tests but I remember switching over to a new test in the 3rd grade and I remember it being called ISTEP. Well, whatever, it doesn’t change the point of my article!

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