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School tests seen as teaching by fear; Learning: Tests can be standardized but childrens' minds can't be.


EXPERTS on education -- the greater their distance from the classrooms, the greater their expertise about teaching -- are in full huff about grade inflation, social promotions and low test scores. Nationally, presidential candidate George W. Bush -- the "C" student at Yale -- pledges to push states to require standardized tests in reading and math for all students in grades three through eight.

School districts would be ordered to publish the results, presumably without pictures of the kids who fail.

In Maryland, the most recent dithering occurred in Montgomery County where the Board of Education toils to create a uniform testing and grading system for high school students.

An "A" at one school should carry the same academic heft as an "A" at another. Variations in testing and grading standards mean that slackers at School X might be acing the final while at School Y some studious grinders may end up with B's and C's.

The proposed solution? Standardized tests and uniform grading. Fine, except that learning is subjective and measuring it objective. Tests can be standardized; minds can't.

Tests, grades and their next of academic kin, homework, represent teaching by fear. Scare kids into learning. Score well on tests, goes the meritocratic message, and pathways to success widen. Do poorly, and they narrow. Kowtow to a teacher's demands for test preparation, no matter how rote the drilling, and it will pay off.

Everyone can ask the kids not what was learned in the course, but "what'd ya get on the test?" And the illusion of excellence remains: the heavier a kid's book-crammed backpack on leaving school, the more the kid is learning.

Fear-based learning is described in Carol Rinzler's book, "Your Adolescent: An Owner's Manual."

Little Kimberly asks her high-achieving parents: "If they tell you in nursery school that you have to work hard so that you'll do well in kindergarten, and if they tell you in kindergarten that you have to work hard so you'll do well in high school, and if they tell you in high school that you'll have to work hard so you'll get into a good college, and they tell you in college that you have to work hard so you'll get into a good graduate school, what do they tell you in graduate school that you have to work hard for?"

Mom and Dad tell Kimberly: "To get a good job so you can make enough money to send your children to a good nursery school."

Fear-based learning works for a while -- until the course ends, when test-givers and graders can no longer intimidate. Quality teachers see students as combustibles: set students on fire with a passion for useful knowledge -- of whatever subject, from art to zoology -- and they will burn for a lifetime.

In desire-based learning, a moment comes when the receiver of knowledge thinks, I need this, it's important to my life. Desire-based learning begins in early childhood when two of life's most difficult skills are mastered on the testless and gradeless level of inner self-motivation.

In "Standardized Minds" (Perseus Books, 1999), Peter Sacks reports that a child in the Chicago school system must take some two dozen tests from the middle of the third grade to the end of the fourth. It begins even earlier with "the Baby Boards" or what Sacks calls "Babes in Testland" : preschool testing of recently undiapered toddlers whose parents heave them into the maw of the nation's brain-measuring machine.

Many 3-year-old applicants to elite nursery schools are being wait-listed, or rejected outright, because they tripped over life's first hurdle: the pre-K admissions examination.

"Of course," Sacks writes, "intelligence tests, used as a screening device to sort the gifted and ungifted and the talented from the merely ordinary, come with the requisite warnings from schools, psychologists, and educators to keep the tests in perspective and not let the results color perceptions about children. -- Despite all that sage advice, the intrinsic power of ratings, ranking and percentiles in American culture may well alter parent's perceptions of their own children -- particularly on tests of so-called intelligence, perceived to be so fundamental to a child's prospects in life."

Schools are peopled by two kinds of teachers: those who want power over students and those who seek power with them. The power-over set are mind-controllers who let students know that academic excellence demands a high price, with payments coming in the form of academic suffering: tough tests, rigid grading standards and heaps of homework.

Educators seeking power with their students de-emphasize all that. They go along with Robert Frost's free-form method of teaching. In his classes at Amherst College, Frost walked in the first day of each semester with no books, no syllabus, no reading lists, but only a frightening question for his students: What do you want to learn? No teacher had ever asked them that. Frost and his students took it from there.

Jeff Spoden, in the history classroom for 14 years in the Mount Diablo, Calif., school district, is the editor of "To Honor A Teacher" (Andrews McMeel, 1999), a 228-page collection of essays and poems by former students about their most influential teachers and coaches.

In none of the essays -- by bus drivers, educators, poets, clergy, social workers -- are teachers or coaches remembered for their tough grading policies or their final exams. One writer tells of being "a scholastic drifter" in high school who "lacked collegiate ambition." Another "hated school" and had been a "screw-off in high school." One was "a misguided teen-ager and lost soul amid 600 other students."

All might have remained that way, the energy sucked out of them by conventional schools. Except for a caring teacher. Of his high school literature teacher, one former student in the Spoden book writes: "He awakened in me a love of learning and for reading that still remains. He demanded that we keep looking deeper into the material and into ourselves. Pretty unusual for 1959. I fell in love with the written word and with fiction. His personal support for me as a troubled but capable student brought me from a sense of inadequacy and failure to belief that I was bright and competent."

So it's the teachers and coaches with caring hearts for the kid who's an underachiever, late bloomer, long shot or screw-off (he became a psychiatrist) who are remembered with affection, not the rigorists or test-happy overlords of the classroom.

In his memoir, "The Machinery of Justice," Clarence Darrow had it right: "As children at school, we knew with our young natural instincts the teacher who loved us and the teacher who despised us -- the one who awoke feelings of love and kindness, the other hatred and revenge."

Spoden, who serves as director of the Teacher Appreciation Project (honorateacher@aol.com), says that "while grades do have some relevance, using them to assess meaningful learning is like looking at a paint job to determine the structural integrity of a house.

Learning is profound when a passionate teacher creates a challenging environment in which students explore powerful ideas. There is no significant place in the equation for a bureaucrat sitting in an office deciding precisely what every student in a state should know."

Kids can expect no relief soon from the testocrats. Sacks argues that "the obsessive drive toward school accountability results in many schoolchildren being treated as criminals, with their punishment inflicted by the state. The 'crime'? Not passing a standardized test mandated by local or state officials for promotion or graduation."

These tests often fail to measure students' real achievement and bear no relationship to how well one does in the real world. Unfortunately, the sorriest grade of all, it appears, goes to the testers.

Colman McCarthy teaches courses on nonviolence at seven Washington-area schools. He directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington.

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