Let's suppose your mom baked a big blueberry pie. Now, that pie represents the wealth of this country. Now, take that pie, and cut it in half. The top half is defense spending, the bottom half is for domestic programs, and the other half is for the national debt.

-- Rich Little, playing Ronald Reagan

Wednesday, January 20, 1999

I was listening to the State of the Union address on the radio last night. (I don't own a TV set, which has its good points and its bad points; I'll probably devote an entry to that someday.) It was interesting trying to follow the numbers. I mean, first the President said that we have to save all the budget surplus for Social Security. Then, having made his point, he gradually added Medicare, USA savings accounts, and other stuff, finally whittling down Social Security's share to 60% of the surplus. That's still a nice chunk of it, but I couldn't help but be reminded of the "Reaganomics" skit from The First Family Rides Again, a bit of which is my quote for the day.

The bit that really worried me -- rather, one of the bits that really worried me -- was point #2 on Clinton's master plan to improve public education: Requiring failing schools to turn around, or be shut down. It sounds like a hard thing to be against, until you start wondering just how to measure that. What are "failing schools," and how are they to turn around?

The intended measuring stick seems to be standardized tests. The problem with this is that tests basically are a measure of how well a given school has prepared students for the test in question, rather than necessarily measuring how well students are being prepared for life.

What I need right now is my sister's vocabulary textbook, but I can't find it anywhere. I suspect I left it back in my former room in the family home. But it was a vocabulary book for eighth graders; part of a series of books at various levels of education. And it has a page at the beginning touting its benefits, and explaining why it is the perfect choice for teaching students.

What makes it so good? Its word lists were specially chosen to include words frequently asked about on the SAT. And, if I recall correctly, it features analogy questions similar to those asked on the SAT. So, by using these books throughout elementary and high school, one will be uniquely prepared for the SAT vocabulary questions, and their studies show that this does, in fact, boost students' SAT scores.

Okay, then what?

Is something wrong with this picture, or is it just me?

The SAT may or may not be a good method of judging students' scholastic aptitude for college; we can argue about that from here to next year. But I don't think too many people would argue that it's a good method of setting a curriculum, nor that it was ever intended to be used as such.

It's to be expected, I suppose. Where there are tests, there will be people who will get hung up on test scores. Where there are such people, there will be pressure on schools to teach to the tests.

This is not to say that the solution is to abolish tests altogether. I'm just trying to point out that the situation isn't a simple one. A stress on standardized testing could actually serve to reduce the quality of education, rather than improving it.

On the other hand, if a school isn't teaching anything in the first place, teaching to the test will at least ensure that some knowledge of importance will be taught. And one might well argue that schools with truly abysmal test scores fit this.

On a local level, teaching to a test can be quite effective, in fact. One of my teachers told us that, when he was in high school, he had one history (I think it was history) teacher who gave really tough exams, covering all sorts of minutae on everything taught during that part of the year. However, the students always managed to steal a copy of the test in advance -- the guy somehow made it really, really easy to do so. So the students would copy the thing, but then they'd still have to figure out the answers. All the answers. Covering all the material taught in class. In detail.

The teacher I heard this from, being a bright sort, caught onto the strategy towards the end of the year. His history teacher had been deliberately leaking the test, not because he was incompetent, but because, while the students thought they were getting around the system, they were actually having to study and learn all of the material. He tricked them into getting an actual education.

(The ethical questions posed by this are a whole 'nother can of worms, but they're not immediately pertinent.)

This doesn't work nearly as well with standardized tests, though. On a local level, it's possible to tailor the tests to fit exactly what was covered in class, in a way compatible with the overall educational strategy. Standardized tests don't have that luxury. They have to settle for asking about areas that the test makers think are important, and that will generally be covered, to some extent, by all classes on that level. That, however, can place a disproportionate emphasis on some areas, to the detriment of others, which may be just as important.

Sigh. I'm rambling, I think. And I'd like to go on for pages and pages, but (a) who would read it? and (b) I don't really have time to. This journal stuff takes longer than I'd expected.

Of course, it would help if I weren't messing with the layout every day. Today's movement of the margin from the right to the left has been done strictly so that I could get the quote before the main text in the code, so that it'll look better for Lynx users. As Lynx is my browser of choice, it matters to me. Although I think I preferred yesterday's layout in Netscape, so the tinkering will likely continue.