Thinking: In Critical Condition

Data is the new god of education. The state of Colorado has made it law that all educational practices need to be based on student data. This is all well and good in theory, but the reality of such laws is more testing. The joke in education now is that no child is left untested (rather than behind) because there is so much pressure to achieve good test scores. It’s funny to me that it isn’t important to know something, but rather how to do something. I recently finished a class through my school district that covered the use of Google Docs in the classroom (really cool ideas by the way–ecollege and blackboard need to build apps that interact with Google Docs…the writers workshop can be forever changed in a good way!!). One of the instructors who is actually a part of Google Educators told me that in the real world, it doesn’t matter what you know. In fact, Google says that they want people who can collaborate instead  of just having people who know everything. Really? I’m pretty sure that if you want to program for Google, you’d better have your act together in terms of programming and computer science. I thought about asking for a sip of his kool-aid, but I needed a good grade. So in a time when education is growing more and more inadequate here in the states, the educational bureaucracy continues to play pinata.

(Side note: And homeschooling isn’t the answer either. Sure, those parents who choose to do so guarantee themselves full control over their children’s curriculum, what they have access to and what they don’t, but it’s still a thought vacuum where you have limited input from people who think/interpret things differently than you do. And one person trying to teach subjects of multiple grade levels is just as stretched as a teacher with 30 kids in a classroom. There are plenty of cracks to slip through in both situations.)

I’ve never been satisfied with the CSAP test, Colarodo’s implemenation for No Child Left Untested. Colorado Department of Education recently released some portions of the test. As writing is one of the most difficult skills to master (you have to read, think, and act simultaneously–pretty tricky for many students!!), I took interest in looking at the various prompts. (Full Disclosure: Of course I see the prompts every year when I proctor the test, but the district makes us sign a contract saying we won’t talk about it. So I won’t talk about what I see on tests, just what I see on the CDE website). Here is a list of the high school (grades 9 and 10) extended writing prompts available online and the years they were in the test:

  • (2001) Some people believe that students should not hold jobs while they are in school because jobs take time and energy away from studying. Others contend that although there should be a limit on the number of hours worked, having jobs is a good way for students to learn responsibility and gain experience in the real world. What do you think? Write an essay that presents your opinion on this issue. You want to persuade the reader to favor your opinion, so you should offer a clear and forceful argument.
  • (2002) Think of something important you have that you did not buy. It could be an object, a person, a place, a personality trait, or anything else. Write an explanation to tell its importance to you.
  • (2002) What is your favorite type of music? Write a paragraph to explain why it is your favorite music. Be sure to provide reasons to support your choice.

(As a side note, it’s a big deal in state standards for students to write for a variety of purposes, but these prompts are all opinion-based. Sure one of them is persuasive, but I don’t think any of them demand any higher level thinking skills. If thinking skills are not required, how can one ever be proficient?)

We as teachers are now expected to look at data, make decisions, think creatively, and form a plan. Yet the system is simply saying, “What do you think? How do you feel?” Writing is an endangered species in itself, especially with people like Goldsmith who are not even requiring students to create their own thoughts about anything (link).

One of the powers of literature is providing the reader with an experience in which he/she might never personally engage. I think it’s valuable to draw connections between what we read and what we live, what someone else thinks and what I think. The ability to do this depends on ones ability to think critically. How can you ever expect students to show their full potential if you don’t require them to reach/think beyond themselves?

But I suppose there is enough data and information out there that it isn’t necessary to think for ourselves because somebody else is willing to do it for us, or they already have. Does this concern anybody else besides me?


2 thoughts on “Thinking: In Critical Condition

  1. Excellent commentary, Joel. I just wanted to add that literature almost always provides an experience the reader can’t have on his or her own. No one can fight alongside Achilles in the Trojan War or travel to Hell in medieval Italy—except through literature. Note that all this literature is rife with facts (real and invented), sensations, ideas, beliefs, personalities, etc. By reducing everything to rootless opinion, the CSAP and people like Kenneth Goldsmith denature the senses, the intelligence, and the imagination. Small wonder we have large numbers of people who can say with “passionate intensity” that evolution is “just a theory” or that poetry is “just a linguistic game.”

  2. Go Joel! Our district just implimented a new math test for grades k-6 on the computer. The students have to take it 3x per year and for the upper grades, 4-6 they are progresed monitored weekly. It’s a joke, for the kinders it’s more about can they use a mouse and match A to A or B to B not if they know math. One question shows 3 butterflies and ask the student which is biggest (for k-1 it’s verbal) under each butterfly is a letter A, B, or C, the students then have to look to the side where they have to click on the corrisponding letter which are in random order. Okay, not all kinders know all their letters at the beginning or even in January. Is it really testing their math skills if they can’t match the letter or if they’ve never used a mouse or computer before? I hate all this data driven stuff. I talked with the assistant superintendant and got Meghan excused from taking it in first grade. Now if I can only get her excused from taking the DIBELs (sorry don’t remember what it stands for) test. It’s “how” the district monitors reading abilities in our district. It’s a timed test so of course ESL and speech students always score low. Last year I had 4 students reading at a 3rd grade level and they still had to take the kinder DIBELs which consists of letter naming, letter sounds, beginning sounds and nonsense words. Of course for the upper grades the district in their infanent wisdom has decided that good readers are fluent readers so to be a good reader one must be fluent so we test for that but not comprehnsion. Hmmmm, comprehension isnt’ as important as fluency?! I would prefer my daughters and my students to ready a bit slower and to understand what they are reading rather than be able to read fast and not understand. I guess I am just crazy. Thanks for letting me air my frustrations with the whole data issue.

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