An Exam Meritocracy…

In a recent article titled Five Myths About U.S. Kids Outclassed by the Rest of the World, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post cites a conversation between Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Singapore education minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. 

In it, Shanmugaratnam was asked why his country consistently ranks higher than the United States on international math and science exams, yet fails to produce top-ranked scientists, business leaders and inventors.

Shanmugaratnam answered that America, "is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America."

As a classroom teacher who emphasizes creative thinking and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, my students engage in frequent collaborative seminars and competitive debates.  They learn to think differently and to reflect carefully on both sides of critical issues by creating and maintaining a classroom blog and podcast on current events. They also create new knowledge on our wiki and engage in long and thoughtful conversations on our digital discussion boards. 

But they score lower than their peers on our statewide standardized tests—and that’s got me feeling the heat.  Seminars, digital dialogue, wiki work and discussion boards are, I believe, valuable 21st century skills that students should tackle.  They are, however, untested skills–leaving me to wonder whether the time that I invest in these kinds of motivating and meaningful activities is worth it. 

So I guess what I’m asking is has America become an exam meritocracy?  Have we as a nation pushed our creativity and our willingness to innovate aside in order to secure a higher ranking in international math and science exams? 

What do we lose when rigid structures and standardized testing replace intellectual curiosity in our classrooms?

2 thoughts on “An Exam Meritocracy…

  1. John Norton

    [Several members of the Teacher Leaders Network commented on this blog post as part of our private listserv discussion. Here are a couple of excerpts.]
    Nancy wrote:
    Two quick thoughts:
    #1) As a parent, if I get to choose between a teacher who pushed kids into media and technological literacy, evaluation of sources, applied literacy and an affirmative classroom climate, or the teachers whose kids scored higher on standardized tests–well, no contest. I pick Teacher A.
    And I believe most educated and savvy parents everywhere would do the same. Notice that I said informed parents, people who think carefully about comprehensive goals for their children’s education. Sometimes, these parents believe this kind of 21st century learning happens mainly in private schools (being schooled, as consumers, to believe that you get what you pay for). Knowing how to do this kind of teaching is a desirable cutting-edge skill.
    #2) This is our battle to fight, as teachers. The more often we put out arguments like the one Bill made–articulate, even eloquent–for a different conception of learning in this world, the more likely we are to attract the attention of our greatest allies in this dialogue: parents. We also need to be at the forefront of demonstrating (through innovative but reliable assessments) that students are learning important skills. Any parent would support analysis of actual student work over time, linked to clearly defined, important goals. Would I rather look at my son’s portfolio of writing, drawing, presentations or his one-shot test scores? Again, no contest.
    This is a national issue, but schools like Bill’s in affluent, educated communities will be the place where new ideas of instruction and assessment will take root and grow.
    Rick wrote:
    Nancy’s right about the fact that we have to educate parents about all of this so they know what’s really important in the years ahead. We’re in trouble, however, if schools suddenly buckle under the pressure and conduct themselves solely in accord with what parents dictate based on their own recollections of school from their childhood.
    Well-meaning as they may be, parents are not trained in how to teach, and many parents operate from a standpoint of anxiety or fear when it comes to their child’s education. In addition, we’re not teaching children of the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s. We’re teaching children of the 00’s and beyond. As professionals, we’re constantly examining the interface between what is being taught and what society is requesting from its schools, as well as all the teaching practices needed to do the job. We should be the ones to make a clear and compelling case for what is needed and get parents up to speed.
    I think there are several points to consider as we determine the learning experiences we’ll provide our students. Some activities are great for first learning content and skills, for example, but others are good only for extending or applying that knowledge. Debates and Socratic Seminars are in this second category. Some experiences we provide are good for both, of course, such as we find in many inquiry lessons and constructivist experiences in which students work together and discover something on their own. We want students to learn a basic core of knowledge but also be adept in its flexible applications. Are these mutually exclusive? Does emphasis of one preclude the emphasis of the other? I don’t think so.
    Of course, we try to do both, as you so wisely do with your students. I don’t think it needs to be a competition, however. We have to prepare students for the conventional world of exam-taking, but exams are limiting because they include only those items that are “standardizable” with which we can compare students, teachers, and curriculum, and a single score on a exam covers such a wide array of individual traits/topics, it is often unusable regarding any one of those traits/topics in any kind of meaningful way. As you mention in your posting, tests don’t capture all that is important to a society — only the stuff that is immediately testable and comparable.
    Here’s my two cents on what we need to do in order to keep from becoming an exam meritocracy:
    1) Get the factual word out to parents and our communities about what schools are doing with students. We have to make our results easily understand and readily accessed. Speak up locally and repeatedly.
    2) Get the word out to parents about the needs of 21st century workers and contributors and how our schools are providing the kind of education that will lead to our students’ success as adults.
    3) Look out for each other. Our own colleagues sometimes fall into the cynicism and hype that muddies the waters so much they begin to believe the test is the almighty, Holy Grail of education. We have to help each other find the courage to say things like, “Learning is much more than reciting facts. Odyssey of the Mind and similar experiences are still valuable and perhaps even more so these days,” “I won’t sacrifice time for creative pursuits in our slow march to the state exam,” “I adjusted the pacing guide because it didn’t meet the needs of my students,” “I’m letting my students revise their early attempts until they get it right,” “I’m going to spend time not only teaching vocabulary terms, but also how to use them strategically,” and, “My students are learning how to graphically portray data, but also how others manipulate data to achieve a political result,” and so on.
    4) Revise our school or district report cards to better reflect what’s really being taught in a responsive classroom.
    5) Share our expertise with policy-makers, i.e. politicians.
    6) Make sure that we are providing learning experiences in which students learn substantive material deeply as well as experiences that allow them to think critically about what they’ve learned. There are some teachers who primarily emphasize one over the other and that’s not as helpful.
    7) Significantly cut the number of standards or objectives that have to be taught in any one year. This isn’t going soft; it’s increasing what students can learn.
    8) Seriously consider extending the school calendar year in order to properly teach what we’ve been commissioned to teach.

  2. Sue Walters

    I am a 7th grade language arts teacher in Leesport Pensylvania. What follows is an article I wrote on the subject that was published in our local paper. It follows the subject of your discussion. I hope you find it interesting.
    The Status of Good Writing Sits on Death Row
    After reading the article published in the Reading Eagle stating that colleges and universities are ignoring the scores on the new writing portion of the SAT as a qualifier for admission because they aren’t a valid measure of writing ability, I wondered if I was the only teacher in the state who could hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” playing in the background. The state’s public school teachers of English have been saying the same thing ever since the Pennsylvania State Skill Assessment (PSSA) was introduced to assess students’ writing in the Commonwealth.
    As teachers of English, we have a big enough job on our hands. Writing correctly and writing well are skills rapidly approaching extinction. Today’s students come to our classrooms writing in a format my colleagues have termed “I. M. Bonics,” a form of e-mail shorthand that they have been using since they were old enough to turn on the computer. It throws all rules of grammar out the window. They no longer spell words out completely. Instead they use symbols such as “2” for to, two, or too. They capitalize nothing.
    Apparently holding the shift key takes far too much time. The use of punctuation marks is completely unacceptable. That would require both thought and pressing more keys on the keyboard. Teachers constantly struggle to correct these bad habits students have acquired via the Internet.
    While restoring the English language to a state that past generations can interpret, we also teach structure, detail, clarity, and word choice, i.e., the qualities that cause us to read a piece of writing to the end and bring us back for more. For this task we explain the need for revision or rewriting. We explain to our students something a wise writer once said: “There are no finished pieces of writing — only deadlines.” Very few of us are skilled enough to write something one time and have it turn out exactly as we wanted it to. This is why writing for an audience is not a quick task; it is a process. Students learn they must write and rewrite until their piece reads as they intended it.
    After practicing this writing “process” throughout the school year, sometime in the spring we hand our students a test created by the Department of Education. We tell them it will assess their writing ability. We equip them with a prompt, a piece of paper, a pencil, and sometimes a peppermint (in hopes of increasing their thinking power). Spell checkers, thesauruses, and dictionaries, tools we taught them diligently to use, are strictly forbidden. Students are given 40 minutes to write their best response. Then we allow them to begin writing using a method that completely disregards the process they have learned and deprives them of the proper tools and the necessary time to produce a coherent piece.
    I wonder how many adults who are polished writers could accomplish such a task? Yet the state expects them to do it, and they hold their teachers responsible when they cannot. Some states even withhold the school’s funding if the students score poorly.
    I applaud the universities and colleges for having the intelligence to see the flaws in the writing assessment process, the gumption to let the testing service know about it, and the good sense to report on it publicly. Perhaps someday public schools will gain the gumption to put an end to this ridiculous practice as well. If current testing procedures continue, English teachers will be forced to abandon teaching the writing process in favor of the quick, non-reflective approach just so students can pass the test. The good writing produced by past generations could meet its demise, and the Department of Education will be its head executioner.

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