Testing… and so much more are killing learning

Posted: April 18, 2013 by jennroig in Commentary, English
Tags: , , , , , ,

13437011-high-school-graduation-hats-highI’ve just stumbled upon this opinion piece on Salon, where the author makes the case that standardized tests are damaging instead of helping the goal of producing more educated, knowledgeable, curious, prepared young people. I agree with basically every argument explained by Mary Elizabeth Williams, but I still believe the issue is even more complex.

I don’t know much about the US educative system, which is by the way very complicated if compared with many other systems around the world, including those from developed countries. So, I’m not pretending that I can rightfully assess the perks and problems of the systems as it is around here. What I can do, based on what I’ve seen and experienced, it’s realizing that something is wrong with the approach that kids are forced to take when it comes to pick their classes, determine how they will study each matter, and how they will prepare themselves for tests and maybe getting into college.

My cousin is in high school, that’s why this is actually touching me now. I see her dedication to school, the way she shows her responsibility in terms of not letting things for the last moment, she’s organized, she knows how to handle pressure -as much pressure as a high school kid can have anyway- and I can tell she has ambition and wants to fight for a bright future as professional. Everything is great so far. However, the other day she asked my help with Spanish. She had a test next morning and she needed me to help her memorize some vocabulary.

My alarm-lights went on in my brain when I heard the word “memorize”, but I cut her some slack,telling myself that Spanish is a second language for her, and whenever you are studying another language other than your mother tongue, of course you need your memory to play a role. Not everything can be deduction and analysis, right?! So, I did help her. Or I tried to do so. But I couldn’t.

The list of “Spanish words” she needed to learn for the exam included some specific terminology that… -let’s say it plane and simple- were not Spanish at all, or any other language for that matter. I knew it because my ears got spasms when I heard it, and because the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of Spanish Language (DRAE) confirmed it. I told her: darling, what’s this, this is not even bloken Spanish, this is just not Spanish at all. Her reaction was unexpected: “hon, I know some words are bogus, but I need to learn what’s in the list because it’s gonna be the content of my exam tomorrow, and I will be graded according what you see there. So don’t worry, I’ll forget everything afterwards. I know how to speak perfect Spanish anyway”. By the way, she’s right, as a daughter of two Cuban Americans who speak Spanish at home and broken English outside, her Spanish is just fine, maybe not perfect, but quite fine and functional.

So, I don’t know if you see what I see or if you would be so annoyed by this as I was -not with her but with the system- but it seemed to me that she would investing her time more wisely if she would be studying Mathematics, for instance. Now, the thing is that she went to school yesterday to get an easy A. But, what’s the real worth of that A? I wonder.

If this Spanish bogus word for a test is a standard issue when it comes to the education system in the USA, things are not doing well.

To the situation, one needs to consider that it’s just not negligence from my cousin that doesn’t stand up and claims to the teacher that his/her method is wrong, and students are getting wrong vocabulary and then their Spanish will just suck. The thing is that every A she gets helps her GPA, and the higher the GPA the better the chances to get a scholarship that can help her to go to college which is the goal. In her case, a few “words” won’t hurt her, because she knows the language anyway. But I wonder what’s the case in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Geography, Biology, English, and all other subjects.

High school students need credits which are granted by picking some mandatory subjects, and some elective ones. When they get to pick, they will select obviously the easier way to get the highest possible grade. So what’s the urge to go and learn some Chemistry if you are more inclined to Humanities? And the other way around, why to bother in learning some geography is no one actually needs to know where Djibouti is? But if this is the rationale, at the end of the day they will all be little experts in something with a very narrow worldview or notions of any thing else out of their specific field of expertise.

Let’s say, next year, she could pick Spanish or another foreign language. If the goal was actually to learn, I would advice to pick Portuguese or French, so she can actually learn something new that can help her as a professional and as a human later in life. But if the goal is securing grades, then pick Spanish that we all know is piece of pie! So I better shut up!

I agree with Mary Elizabeth, testing is killing learning. But there is so much more killing learning such as the pressure of grades, the economic factor of having a way to afford education, and the competitive nature of the process of granting scholarships. I know she has plenty of time to learn whatever she wants, I’m just saying she could taking so much more advantage of the time she has in her hands just right now!

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