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Eye on the News

Jerry Weinberger
Fill In the Blanks
Is preparing for standardized tests replacing learning?
6 June 2011

For the past decade or so, the dominant trend in education reform has been the rigorous use of standardized tests to measure student performance. I’m neither an economist nor a statistician, so I make no claim to know whether the elaborate systems of evaluation made fashionable first by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and now by Race to the Top, President Obama’s education-grant competition, can be made to work. The recent discovery that New York’s math and reading scores were inflated by dumbed-down standards of proficiency, something now common under NCLB, gives good reason to be skeptical. But even if such a system could work, the real question would remain: Are the test-taking skills that it measures worth all that much?

I’ve been a professor of political philosophy in the political science department at Michigan State University for almost 40 years. I was chair of the department for four years. So I know a thing or two about the state of the student body. Michigan State is a terrific institution and pretty typical of the large, research-oriented public universities (especially the Big and Pac Tens). The Greenes’ Guides rank it among the 30 “Public Ivys” and say that it has more freshman National Merit Scholars than all but 19 other public universities. And it’s a relative bargain for talented students of modest means. Still, being big and public, it has students who range from mediocre to brilliant, with a big bulge in the middle. Over the years, I’ve had wonderful undergraduate students go on to success and even to fame and fortune, some of it academic, and I’ve enjoyed the undergraduate classroom immeasurably.

But for the last six or eight years, I’ve noticed ominous changes on the other side of the lectern. First, more and more of my students, and not just freshmen, can’t tie their own shoes. They lose syllabi and can’t follow simple instructions; they don’t get the right books; they e-mail me to ask when and where the final exam will be held (as if they didn’t know when they signed up and don’t know how to find out); they forget to bring blue books to exams; they make appointments and don’t keep them; and many never come to office hours at all, except perhaps on the day before an exam. Last semester, one of my colleagues, a well-known scholar of judicial politics and behavior, became exasperated when her students complained about the unfairness of her attendance policy, which accounted for 10 percent of their grade. Slackers whined that her tyranny would cause one student to be deported, cost another a scholarship, get another kicked out of school, and keep a fourth from graduating. One student, who had attended just three classes (all of them on exam days), pleaded for a passing grade, since his F would have “negative consequences.” Another student had the audacity to ask that the date of a moot court exercise, in which 17 other students were involved, be changed because of a “really important sorority volleyball match.”

My guess is that much of this fecklessness can be traced to the helicopter parents who micromanage their kids through planned and adult-supervised activities from the cradle to the day they depart for college. And some of it springs from a privileged sense of entitlement among the wealthy fraternity types who clog campus streets with expensive SUVs. But by far the most important reason, in my view, is that the bachelor’s degree is becoming the workforce equivalent of a high school diploma. A growing number of young people at campuses across the country just want their tickets punched and care about nothing else, except the bars.

Still more ominous, though, is the inability of more and more students to tie their own intellectual shoes. The first glimmerings of this shift began with the advent of multiculturalism: not a bad thing in itself, indeed a wonderful fact of American life, but intellectual opium as it played out in the identity politics of campus academic life. When I started hearing students complain about the “hurtfulness” of Nietzsche’s and Hobbes’s attacks on the absurdities of certain religions and cultures, I saw the effects of a doctrine that tells everyone at freshman orientation that whatever they are and whatever they believe is just fine. It’s hard to get students to question their beliefs when the established campus motto is “I’m OK, You’re OK.”

But multiculturalism isn’t the only culprit here. Prior to about 2004, I’d write final exams with essay questions like “Compare Hobbes and Nietzsche on the question of religion” and “What is the difference between Marx and Locke on the origins of private property?” I’d correctly assume that the students had read the texts more than once and as carefully as could be expected from undergraduates. Should I do that today, I’d probably incite a riot, and perhaps as many as 20 percent of the students would flunk because they hadn’t read a word of the assigned texts. I know that these students don’t read because they never have their books with them in class. Further evidence arrived last fall when, just before the final exam, one student (with a stellar GPA) came to my office to talk about Hobbes’s Leviathan. I realized that I’d forgotten to bring my working copy with me, but before I could reach for another edition, the student offered her own. It hadn’t been cracked; there was no sign of usage on the spine; there wasn’t a mark in it, not a marginal note, not an underline. This high-achieving young lady had unblushingly handed me a book that she obviously hadn’t read. Getting the right answer, as one might do by filling in a bubble on a standardized test, bore no relation in her mind to reading and pondering the text.

Also last fall, as for the last six years or so, I was besieged by e-mails and appeals in class for “study guides” before the midterm and the final exams. Students peppered me with e-mails asking to know what “the important chapters” were in the reading, or what “the important point” was in the classes they missed. When I sent out a study guide (I caved on that two years ago), they wrote out their answers and asked me if they were “on the right track.” At the end of the last day of class, I asked for questions about the whole of the readings and lectures: last time to ask and all that. Hands shot up. In one version or another, all the students asked the same question: What do we have to know for the final exam? Exasperated, I told them that when I had gone to college, such a question would have been as unthinkable as it would have been humiliating. I then asked them if in high school they’d been “taught to their tests,” especially standardized ones, and provided with study guides and PowerPoint summaries that, in essence, gave them the questions and the answers. My query elicited a sea of nodding heads.

When I gave the exam, some students groused when they saw questions that could be answered only by having read the texts. They were stumped, and their grades reflected it. After grades were in, an excellent student with a 4.0 GPA who earned an A-minus in my class e-mailed me: “It is honestly the first class I have had to work for a grade much since I have been in college. College is full of courses handing out study guides nearly identical to exams, and I thoroughly appreciated this challenge, and actually having to read the material and come to class.” Perhaps she was just brown-nosing and repeating what I’d said in class. But I don’t think so, because what she said is increasingly true.

I discussed the matter with a young colleague who specializes in urban policy and knows a lot about education reform, and what she had to say was eye-opening: credible research suggests that preparation for standardized tests is crowding out history, science, and literature and that even high test scores don’t mean that students can say anything about something they’ve read for the first time. No wonder, I concluded, the smart young lady in my office wanted to know Hobbes’s argument without having to read what he wrote.

At the end of the semester last fall, I’d become a bit sour about undergraduate students in general, however much I enjoyed those in my class who read what I assigned and really wanted to learn. But that was too hasty a judgment on my part. Perhaps the kids who won’t read are, at least in part, one of the unintended consequences of the 1,000-page NCLB legislation. If so, then it’s not fair of me to blame them for how they’ve been taught to learn.

Jerry Weinberger is a professor of political science at Michigan State University, director of the LeFrak Forum at Michigan State, and an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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