Anne Krapu: It's Wrong To Focus On Testing In Education


Once again, I’m going to throw George W. Bush a compliment. In 2000, he famously stated, “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” W had a point. Whenever policymakers do ask for quantifiable evidence about what American children are learning, an immediate snowball fight ensues regarding the quality of teachers, curriculum standards, proper level and frequency of standardized testing, huge disparities between the qualities of school districts (a social can of worms in itself), and any number of other variables brought into the debate. Thus, the question is rarely asked, because no one is happy with the answers. This is especially true when international rankings are taken into consideration.

According to the Bismarck Tribune from last week, the results from the first North Dakota State Assessment, which was given to a variety of grade levels, showed 46 percent of students were proficient in English and 40 percent in math. These results may have come as a surprise to some, because as SSPI Kirsten Baesler noted, an “honesty gap” has [most certainly existed] in our state.” She pointed out that past North Dakota assessment scores showed students were between 70 percent and 80 percent proficient, yet 40 percent of them needed remedial courses in college.
The following are my suggestions on improvement based on experience as a student in Valley City Public Schools, Shanley, Fargo South (AP classes not offered at Shanley), ND Division of Independent Study (extra classes), and a variety of universities in the US and abroad. I have also taught US Common Core, ACT prep (Beijing), International Baccalaureate, British GSCEs and A-Levels (UAE), within post-Soviet systems and done education consulting.

Note: This post is written with the assumption we want to improve academic performance in North Dakota. For readers who rely on findings that say North Dakota isn’t so bad compared to the rest of the nation to dismiss the need to improve, I will say (with some authority) that in global terms, that is like being a starter on the JV squad. Let’s continue.

The monomaniac focus on finding a magic formula via universal standards needs to stop. Yes, common standards reflecting 21st century goals are important, but kids who can’t focus, don’t see the value in learning, or slip through the cracks for other reasons are not going to get the full rewards of the education available to them regardless of which experts or elected officials signed off on their subject content.

Education does not exist in a microcosm. Child poverty rates in ND are increasing and this affects academic performance – it’s more difficult for stressed and hungry kids to absorb the content of their lessons. It has been said that being bullied builds resilience and character, but if you’re worried about getting mocked on social media or beat up, that’s energy that’s not going into memorizing the formulas you need for Algebra 1. Let’s take these concerns seriously.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Education does not exist in a microcosm. Child poverty rates in ND are increasing and this affects academic performance – it’s more difficult for stressed and hungry kids to absorb the content of their lessons.[/mks_pullquote]

In my experience, the most effective way to guide students on an academically successful path is to find out what makes them tick and show them how the things they are required to do in school help them reach that goal – and starting early is good. They read in and out of school, they pay attention in classes in math and logical thinking, and with a quick primer on standardized test strategy (pep-talk, be rested, don’t chug Red Bull the morning of the exam, and time-management pointers), their results are generally good.

We reach a roadblock, however, when the only things that make them tick are video games, constant text-messaging, and Keeping up with the Kardashians. Your kid is not going to be the next Pewdiepie, and if he or she wants to be a game developer, know the competition is fierce and involves a multitude of skills independent of high scores. Scholarship applications written in text-speak will be rejected, and employers expect written documents to be composed in proper English. Working in reality TV (off-camera) usually initially involves an awful lot of unpaid coffee fetching in high rent areas, so a practical plan B is appropriate. Getting actually casted for a reality show is also a situation where the odds are not in your favor. I applied for the Real World out of curiosity a few years ago and made it decently far (top 5%), but was probably cut from having gone from the size 2 photo submitted to a size 6 when I actually interviewed with the casting producers (on Skype, having already passed two phone interviews) and saying I wouldn’t take the bait to argue about abortion on camera. Reality TV is not a plan; if you want to be famous, do it by innovating and offering something positive and worthwhile.

The difference I see between hours spent not in school or doing homework 15 years ago and 2015 is that back then, kids had to make their own fun. You couldn’t just plug into entertainment on demand. Hell, I had to teach myself basic DOS commands at the age of 8 just to be able to play Number Munchers when my mom didn’t want me on the computer. Farm chores give their own lessons on biology and resource management. Mechanically inclined kids would try to physically fix or invent things, and if all went well, the experiment explode. Those with entrepreneurial ambitions would act on them on small scales (snow-shoveling, baby-sitting, etc.) If you were lucky, you might get a crash course from Grandma or Grandpa about WWII that also involved some homemade cookies. The point is, even though I believe every child has the ability to excel academically in the classroom, lessons learned outside of it and away from screens help put everything else in a real world context. This often leads to the development of life-long passions, which then drive successful careers and overall happiness. This has nothing to do with the name of the school/training one does after high school, and is arguably just as important. We need to recognize that education cannot be critically discussed outside of the issues facing larger society, and kids latch on to that which they are exposed.

Foreign language classes give a unique opportunity for some students. Just like natural artists and musicians, some kids find acquiring another language to be both exceptionally easy and rewarding. They should have the opportunity to grow these skills. Additionally, for those considering military careers, testing well on the ASVAB gives the opportunity to pursue a wider range of specialties and requires knowledge of many types of academic and practical subjects. One of those specialties, linguistics, also requires taking the D-LAB. (I’d explain exactly how this reasoning works – it might not be the way you think – but I was told when I took it that the test was classified so not to talk much about it). The linguist track is especially cool because training takes place in Monterrey and skills are super transferable post-active duty. (Anne’s bonus fact of the week.)

Finally, I’m going to touch the third rail. In school, academics ought to be the main course and athletics are dessert. Yes, physical fitness is important but shouldn’t require constant early dismissals from academic classes or cut into budgets for learning materials and other knowledge-centric resources, including staff. I’ve heard the arguments that such a heavy focus on athletics is necessary to promote teamwork, dedication, and discipline. Are teachers who assign challenging group work, expect that serious effort goes into assignments, and require the ability to turn in tasks on time and according to instructions living in some non-consequential dream world? We care about getting our students to the point that they are eligible for merit-based scholarships if need be – sports are NOT the only route for financial aid. Athletics are dessert. Eat your broccoli first. And snowballs should be thrown with thought and consideration: Nobody in America wants to see our newest generation fail.