Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Distorted Learning Through Test-Taking Culture

Typical Test-Centric Student?

I read two articles this morning that note the distorted understanding of education encouraged by the rise of standardized testing as a measure of learning. The first article, "The China Conundrum: American colleges find the Chinese-student boom a tricky fit" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 2011), written by Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer, describes the bewilderment of many Chinese students who head to America for higher education. The Chinese have long had a test-taking culture that emphasizes rote memorization, a practice deeply rooted in Confucian educational tradition, but they have adapted this tradition to fit the educational paradigm of standardized testing:
Students in China's test-centric culture spend most of their high-school years studying for the gao kao, the college entrance exam that is the sole determining factor in whether students win a coveted spot at one of China's oversubscribed universities. So it's not unusual for those who want to study in the United States to spend months cramming for the SAT and the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl, which most campuses require for admission.

Patricia J. Parker, assistant director of admissions at Iowa State, which enrolls more than 1,200 Chinese undergraduates, says students have proudly told her about memorizing thousands of vocabulary words, studying scripted responses to verbal questions, and learning shortcuts that help them guess correct answers.

She has seen conditionally admitted students increase their Toefl scores by 30 or 40 points, out of a possible 120, after a summer break, despite no significant improvement in their ability to speak English. Her students, she says, don't see this intense test-prepping as problematic: "They think the goal is to pass the test. They're studying for the test, not studying English."

The American academic culture is not yet entirely dominated by 'test-centrism' because the professors teaching today were educated in an academic environment that had not yet become dominated by standardized testing. They therefore still try to teach students to think for themselves:
During this past September's orientation on the University of Delaware's Newark campus, Scott Stevens, director of the English Language Institute, stood on the stage in front of a mostly filled theater. Behind him, on a large screen, was a stock photo of two white college students seated at desks. The male student was leaning over to look at the female student's paper. "We are original, so that means we never cheat!" Mr. Stevens told the audience of primarily Chinese students, mixing compliments and warnings. "You are all very intelligent. Use that intelligence to write your own papers."

But these days, even American students are apparently less well equipped for education that does not focus on teaching toward an exam, a fact documented by Kaustuv Basu in "Socratic Backfire?" (Inside Higher Ed, October 31, 2011). Kaustuv writes about the experience of Professor Steven Maranville, who was recently denied tenure at Utah Valley University, partly due to student complaints about his teaching:
Some students didn't take well to Steven Maranville's teaching style at Utah Valley University. They complained that in the professor's "capstone" business course, he asked them questions in class even when they didn't raise their hands. They also didn't like it when he made them work in teams.

Maranville was doing nothing improper, so far as I can see. I'm particularly baffled by the complaint that he asked them questions when they hadn't raised their hands. Asking questions to get students to think is a proper part of teaching. Maranville is now in court over the university's decision to deny tenure, and he's having to defend his teaching style:
Maranville followed the Socratic teaching style and described his way of teaching as "engaged learning," according to court documents. Those records describe teaching approaches designed to go beyond lectures. He would ask questions to stimulate discussion. He divided his students into teams and gave them assignments outside class.

The Socratic style of teaching that Maranville used is hardly novel. But experts say that while it remains popular in law schools, there are reasons many faculty members have never used it extensively with the current generation of students.

"When done well, you simply do not impose the teacher's idea, and try to come up with a solution through dialogue," said Michael Apple, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "In general, it is a guided dialogue." Supporters of the method see it as "a process by which you try to make the best logical argument and you focus on process as much as content," Apple said. But he added that not that many faculty members use it these days. "The reason for its unpopularity sometimes is because we are in a test-based education system. Students can be increasingly impatient where the answer is not clear and when the professor is not giving it to them immediately."

A lot also depends, Apple said, on who the students are. "It is controversial to some people, for example, students who are deeply concerned that they have to learn a certain amount of content and then take a test at the end," he said. Students may also think that they are being treated as if they were not very smart.

What a baffling attitude students have! Socratic questioning presupposes student intelligence, the ability to think for oneself! Apparently, students these days look on learning as little more than the memorizing of class notes written down as the professor lectures, the aim being to pass a test, and any process that departs from the rapid conveyance of information is an inefficient waste of time. They don't see that genuine education means learning how to think, which entails slowing down to ask questions and look at an issue from various points of view as they learn to integrate facts and ideas on their own under the guidance of a good teacher.

I don't know, of course, that Professor Maranville is actually a good teacher. Students may have a reason to complain. But the remarks by Professor Michael Apple are very revealing about the assumptions held by the current generation of students about learning due to the prevalence of a test-based educational system.

Little wonder that my teaching style doesn't quite perfectly fit either East or West these days . . .

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At 8:44 AM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

I teach high school in the US, and the net effect of No Child Left Behind has been more and more concentration on test taking. Some teachers say you have to do it, and if you don't do it, you can have some friction with the administrators - whose jobs are on the line if the school doesn't meet the annual yearly progress.

It makes no sense to me since I looked at the test (the English section). If students have basic level reading comprehension skills, they should be able to pass the test easily. And they should be gaining those skills through the type of activities you would think you'd expect in an English Language Arts classroom. There is no need to drill them the majority of their class time using test-prep books and worksheets.

I think the actual reason too many teachers do test prep is the same reason Korean ESOL teachers stick to the inadequate textbooks and speak Korean 90%+ in class: It is easier. Worksheets and test-prep books take virtually no preparation time. They are easy to grade. And they keep the students busy.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Another thing I noticed back 10 to 15 years ago as a grad student was that the in-coming college students expected to make As and A+s. More and more looked at an 85 as a failing mark. They would argue/lobby with profs for a higher grade and would get miffed if they didn't get it. Along with this, they didn't believe in constructive criticism. All criticism was an unwarranted attack, because they had always made As before...When I began teaching high school, I found the same thing.

At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks to NCLB and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's six-or-one-half-dozen alternative, Race to the Top, we are swiftly moving towards becoming a test-taking culture. Moving beyond the required passing rates that rise every year to 100% in 2014, Race to the Top compels school districts to weigh student achievement on standardized tests from 25-40% of teacher evaluation marks. Obama used 2009 stimulus money to bribe financially strapped states into accepting Race to the Top. Arne Duncan has been waving NCLB waivers as another bribe. Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting how both major parties have abandoned any notion of feasible, effective education reform in favor of ideas popular with corporate donors like Bill Gates, a perfect example of the American-style oligarchy that Paul Krugman warned us about a few days ago in the NYT.


At 9:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Scott A., I hadn't realized things were so bad. When I was an undergrad at Baylor, no one wanted below 70, the "D" range.

I can't imagine 85 as a failing grade!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, the problem sounds even more dire than I imagined!

As for Gates, what can one expect from a man who barely went to college . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

My county failed AYP in only 1 category: special education. And they replaced everyone in the school board and got rid of 30-50% of the principles. So, at least now teachers can say they do grammar and other worksheets and other test prep due to significant pressure from above.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What's AYP?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:01 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I'm guessing it's not the American Youth Philharmonic, of which my brother Sean was a member in his younger days.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps it's Adequate Yearly Progress, which I just found on Wikipedia by searching AYP.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

I think it's annual yearly progress. Like Sonagi wrote, the benchmark for what is an acceptable passing rate on the standardized tests rises every couple of years until it is supposed to be 100%.

Several years ago, the bar was low enough that only chronically poor schools were failing to meet the percentage of students passing. Just a couple of years ago, however, the bar had reached a point that a lot of schools were failing overall or in subcategories of students. The closer you get to 100% passing being the acceptable mark, the more schools fail and the more administrators get fired or relocated.

The closer you get to the 100% benchmark, the more you have schools and school systems cheating - which recently happened in Atlanta and cost a lot of people their jobs including teachers.

100% passing is a noble goal but crappy benchmark. It is sad students can't pass these easy tests, and I'm for pushing schools to do a better job, but the net result is not better education. What we get is teaching to the test and professional standardized test takers.

And one stat I don't hear much about in these discussions is how the drop out rate has declined much in the last couple of decades. It is far below what it used to be in my area.

At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

Nope. It's adequate. At least now. Maybe it's my dialect. We say yall too...

At 1:15 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, "annual yearly progress" would sound redundantly repetitive.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:22 PM, Anonymous Scott A. said...

We don't get it unless its repetitive. (Doesn't Korean do that too? And Japanese? Aren't there many words/phrases that repeat? Like the Korean word for waddle?)

At 3:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Okay, okay, I see what you mean.

Jeffery Hodges

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