My eighth-graders and I are in the midst of reading “Lord of the Flies” and about to do some concluding work including analyses of the sources of government legitimacy, causes of violence and warfare, and the lack of governance in our digital lives.
In all of this, I can’t help but think about the imminent standardized test – the SBAC – because the connection between the issues and ideas that really matter in the book are most decidedly not the kinds of things covered on the SBAC. This is because the SBAC tests skills, but not wisdom, insight, knowledge, etc.
The book is outstanding, raising as it does a variety of issues, offering a richness of ideas and generally stimulating thoughtful analysis of our lives in society. But when I ask my eighth-graders (pretty good students, pretty effective test takers –we pass at about 80 percent every year) to make conceptual connections from the book to ideas and arguments about things like the sources of legitimacy upon which authority rests, they resist doing so.
Undoubtedly, this resistance arises partly from the entropy too characteristic of our human nature (which happens to be our thematic focus for the year). But I fear we have compounded the problem by training students to read primarily in order to answer questions – about finding the main point, the author's purpose, etc., and do so just how the test writer expects – rather than find and do interesting things with what they read.
We have, I suspect, hampered rather than stimulated their fledgling but developing intellectual curiosity.
The very logic of the Common Core and its attendant testing processes heighten the risk of falling into this intellectual abyss by calling for education to teach students the preliminary skills – to gather, understand, organize and present material – necessary to equip developing minds to progress up to the interesting and engaging work with the material.
This emphasis on skills is reflected in the commonly expressed organizing principle in which so-called college readiness is achieved by progressively scaling backwards the supposedly necessary skills down from 12th grade to kindergarten, so that each subsequent year of school strengthens students’ skills.
Under all this, of course, is a philosophical orientation to what education is and should be; much less what a student ought to know than what he or she ought to be able to do. The latter is astoundingly important, obviously, but no more than the former.
Essentially, the test only assesses skills, primarily because constructing tests of standardized skills is substantially less controversial than standardization of content.
The difficulty is that the skills practice can become so dull as to weaken enthusiasm for doing the next level of more interesting work. My eighth-graders gleefully acknowledge that they've read a book and argued with a friend about something in it (a character, a behavioral decision, etc.), or watched the movie version of a book and argued over whether the movie "got it right."
Nobody ever goes home and argues over what they read in the standardized test material. The reading is “boring,” and the activities connected to it aren't particularly engaging.
In class, I ask students to create a piece of work (an essay, some sort of artwork or a dramatization) that makes interesting connections among things, and show that to me. I'm interested, too. But their first reaction is typically, "How long does it have to be?" “Does it have to be in color?” Or, “How many points is this worth?”
The work that teachers do with learners ought to encourage intellectual omnivorousness, but education (the bureaucratic system of schooling) creates minds accustomed to working toward uninteresting goals and getting there as expeditiously as possible . . . it's the destination, not the journey.
So, unless we’re careful, while we focus on basic or fundamental or essential skills, the testing process we're so enthralled with may actually beat curiosity out of young brains by demanding they do mind-numbing tasks that discourage serious and satisfying involvement with interesting material.
Andrew K. Milton of Tacoma is an eighth-grade English teacher in the Steilacoom School District. He is the author of “The Normal Accident Theory of Education.”