Thoughts from Jesse Goldberg: To the test?

"You need to worry less about grades and more about learning." - Mr. Michael Boyle, former English teacher

This should have been common sense, and at my core I think I always realized this, but that statement made explicit and effable a feeling that I couldn't quite grasp or justify until I heard another person articulate it: grades do not necessarily denote real learning.

There is a notion among students that grades should be the focus of their education. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my philosophy class, having an analytical discussion of moral relativism and religion when one student shouted out, "OK, can you just tell us what's going to be on the test?" Luckily, our professor smoothly brought the focus back to what was actually important: the philosophical discussion.

This focus on grades and tests is a glaring issue that I have with our education system. Grades exist for multiple purposes. First, it is argued, they motivate students who otherwise would not have any desire to actively participate in school. Second, grades allow teachers and other prominent officials to rate and compare individuals in order to ascertain who will be the best choice for a given position, be it employment or a spot in a college.

These are not completely absurd purposes - despite the fact that I disagree with each to a certain extent - but it is the value placed on grades which irks me the most. This value comes from a test-based education system. Standardization is a reoccurring theme in the history of the United States education system. It is reasonable and even noble to expect that all students in the country receive the same level of education.

Therefore, standardization of curriculums is a great idea because where you go to school does not determine the breadth of knowledge that you have. It is also reasonable to believe that if everyone is learning similar material, there should be some standard method of testing all students' grasp of the material. It is unreasonable, however, to expect all teachers to teach to standardized tests and to expect all students to be able to score comparably on such tests.

First, it is unreasonable to expect all teachers to teach to standardized tests. In fact, teaching according to a test is antithetical to the ideals of teaching. Some would argue with the idealist that teachers should want to teach to the test so that students have the best opportunity for success, but who here is defining what success is? Why does the sum of collaborative effort to ascend into higher levels of intellectual realization get boiled down to arbitrary numbers?

Success is not the ability to score well on a test, but a relatively greater knowledge and understanding of one's world. On that note, there is a difference between knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is a person's range of information; understanding is the ability to think or power of apprehension and abstract thought. Unfortunately, a system based on standardized tests thereby places more emphasis on knowledge than understanding.

Of course, one cannot understand what one does not know. I am not arguing that tests and grades are obsolete, but rather that they are a means, not an end, to educational success. To expect a teacher to teach to a test is unreasonable because it expects the teacher to narrow his or her curriculum, rather than expand it, in the sense of depth rather than breadth of course.

This ultimately does a disservice to students.Second, it is unreasonable to expect all students to score comparatively on standardized tests. Quite simply, not everyone is a good test taker. In addition, there are many studies that suggest a large chunk of standardized tests have a white, middle-class content bias. To expect that students from all ranges of the spectrum of human experience can be measured by the same standards is highly ambitious and fairly absurd.

But the point here, is the over-valued nature of grades, not the use of standardized tests. The value of grades is a necessary conclusion of a system based on standardized tests. Change the methods of assessment, and you change the attitudes about grades. Teach for understanding as well as knowledge, and students begin to understand that the test is not the most important part of the class.