Ok, school’s started so enough with golf and lawn mowing, time for more important stuff like rounding up all the urchins and getting them wedged back into school soon enough so they can be taught for the Regents’ test. For those of you that need information on NYS Regents exams, see my latest book Minimum Competency where I give an extensive history of these exams. (If you don’t have the book, buy one at IUniverse.com, Amazon.com, BarnesandNobel.com, eBay or have your friendly local bookstore order one for you.) At any rate, I was one of those teachers that happened to have liked the idea of these state-wide exams, depending on how they were used.
First they keep teachers and schools on task and up to minimum levels. A teacher has to teach the curriculum not concentrate on one area where he or she feels most comfortable with. An English teach can’t teach just Shakespeare, for example, ignoring literature. Or a history teacher just concentrate on wars because they kept their students interested but has to create interest in the causes and effects. A math teacher can’t emphasize algebra and leave out trigonometry because they feel out of depth with it. A teacher has to be able to get across every aspect of their level or go back to school to become competent in it. Likewise, testing results are a good indication as to where a particular student falls in relation to others in the state. This allows schools of higher learning as well as employees to know what level of knowledge these students have achieved no matter where they learned it. At the same time it allows teachers at the next level to know that the students coming to them have reached a certain plateau in their knowledge—although, admittedly they forgot most of it over the intervening summer—so they have a starting point for the next level. Finally, it gives the students a feeling of confidence just knowing they not only have reached a certain level but are on a par with their peers at that level.
There is a bad side as well. Primarily this comes from reading into the test results things that are not there. For one thing, poor scores are not necessarily indicative of poor teaching or poor learning. Not all students learn at the same rate any more than all of them grow and mature alike. To say that once a student completed a single year in, say algebra at age 14, doesn’t mean they learned everything in that course. Maybe the child needed more time, a different teaching method or outside incentive. A failure in one or the other of these exams may simply mean there needed to be more and/or alternative teaching. Noneducators (by these I mean anyone outside the classroom either administrators, state ed department functionaries, or parents) tend to jump to the wrong conclusion when looking at test scores and blame them on either teachers or students when there can be outside influences to poor scores. These influences include, but are not limited to: a bad test, the testing of material outside the acceptable content of the curricula, the wrong students (or teacher) being expect to learn (or teach) that subject at that point in time.
Even more of a problem is the thinking by those in the Ivory Tower of the Educational Department that not everyone should be able to pass a particular test. But if these tests are designed correctly then all of the students should be able to achieve whatever is considered the minimum score. In other words, if a test is fair then all the students should pass it. While, granted, all don’t, if they or at least a substantial number of them do, then so be it. The problem is that this isn’t the case. Some in the upper echelons of education has recently decided that because the state’s schools are showing marked improvement on the elementary Language Arts, Math and Science exams that these exams are becoming too easy. Maybe it’s time they decide what it is they want; educated students or lower marks. Obviously if, in the beginning, a standard was set then it should remain. Unfortunately too, many people in Albany have too much time to sit around and think of ways to make themselves important at the expense of those in the trenches.
Regents’ Exams or standardized tests are great if they are used correctly. Unfortunately, what is failed to be recognized is that these tests are being taken by many square pegged children who cannot and should not, be fitted into a nice round hole. While it is fairly easy to test to see if every Buick rolling off the assembly line will start, there is not sure way to be sure that every algebra student can graph a straight line. Also, while starting a Buick may be important to its function, graphing a straight line may not be to that child. What should be done are for someone—preferably teachers with classroom experience in the field working with those outside the educational system—to decide what is needed and what the minimum standards should be. Then design a curriculum around these standards and work up testing that, while checking for perfection in the topic, will allow all those who meet these standards to “pass”. Once this test is tweaked so these standards are met, leave it alone and allow children and teachers to move passed them at the student’s rate, even if it means taking more (or less) time than noneducators think it should. That will make testing meaningful.