Saturday, March 19, 2011

Guest post: Reality test

[From Chris, originally posted at A Blog About School]

To the list of biases that standardized tests are accused of, we can now add: a bias against kids who don’t watch television. The most recent SAT included an essay question on the topic of reality TV, which apparently flummoxed kids who don’t watch reality shows or immerse themselves in pop culture.

Most revealing was the testing company’s defense of the question. “The primary goal of the essay prompt is to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills,” one company executive said. “Everything you need to write the essay,” another explained helpfully, “is in the essay prompt.”

Set aside these executives’ willful blindness to the whole idea of bias. (Apparently there would be no gender bias in a question about football scoring, for example, as long as the “prompt” explained how football scoring worked.) It is probably true that virtually any essay would tell you something about the author’s writing ability. But what a strange conception of writing these tests embody. “It doesn’t matter whether you know anything about the topic, or whether you have anything to say. Just demonstrate your writing skills!

Take any human quality, dumb it down until it’s unrecognizable, and you can measure it. Hardly the principle to build an educational system on, but here we are.

Here’s one teacher’s take on the kind of teaching these tests produce.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, thanks for cross-posting!

    Good writing begins with having something to say, or a story to tell, or a mood you want to create, or some other genuine human motive. Writing is currently being taught in a way that actually prevents kids from experiencing a true motivation for it.

    The article you linked to is well worth reading. It mentions one of my pet peeves, the way kids are taught to never repeat a word. This stupid idea has been around long enough that I often see it in published books. It's an irritating tic. You see paragraphs like this:

    "In the morning, the cat woke up and stretched its claws. Then the animal used the litter box. Next, the furry mammal ate some dry bits out of its food bowl, after which the feline went outside and rolled on the warm sidewalk."

    If it's done really badly, the reader can be genuinely confused about how many different subjects the author meant to discuss.