Thoughts on the New S.A.T.
Some critics say that the recently announced plans to revamp the Scholastic Aptitude Test are too modest. I believe, on the contrary, that the inclusion in 1994 of a written essay section, non-multiple-choice questions in mathematics, and more emphasis on critical reading represents "a giant leap for mankind."
Here is why.
About 30 or so years ago, the world of education at most levels began relying heavily, and in some cases exclusively, on multiple-choice testing. That movement signaled the decline of quality education, because it changed the way teaching and learning were performed.
Prior to the multiple-choice era, students were asked to read materials and were then asked to explain, compare, contrast, and tell why. Not much of that is done today. The reason is simple: Essay testing requires too much teacher time to grade.
Teachers in K-12 and professors in postsecondary education have become dispensers of data rather than facilitators of learning. Today, at most levels (with the exception of graduate and professional postsecondary education), data are spit out in the students' direction and then the students are asked to regurgitate the data. Notice, they regurgitate the data, not information.
Data can be thought of as raw facts--When did Christopher Columbus discover America? What is the square root of 145? What are the first three lines of the Gettysburg Address?
But information and understanding are so different from data regurgitation; somehow we lost sight of that. For 30 years we have been handicapping our young people and it shows. In virtually every study that compares American students with those of other Western countries, American kids fall far short. I submit that a major part of the reason why is that we have moved too heavily to multiple-choice testing to save the teacher and the professor time.
Multiple-choice testing generates a different, stunted, and anti-intellectual approach to teaching and learning. When one constructs a multiple-choice test, one cannot ask the obvious--else, all students get perfect scores. So teachers turn to asking peripheral questions with borderline differences between shades of meaning to ensure a reasonable distribution of grades. But the basics are lost in the process. Only the brightest students really learn the fundamentals--and they probably do that largely on their own.
The form of testing is critical to the learning process. If you don't believe that, just tell your students that no tests will be given--only attendance will determine the grade--and see how much learning (or studying) takes place. Zip.
If you tell them that your tests will consist of multiple-choice questions, many (most?) will not study for comprehensive understanding; rather, they will try to be able to regurgitate bits and pieces of data. Worse, too many students will not gain aptitude in trying to organize or express thoughts clearly.
On the other hand, simply tell a class you will ask essay questions and they will be forced to expect almost anything; they will study in a very different way. They may not like it, but they will study in a very different way.
Charles Sykes, in his recent book Profscam, claims that higher education has turned its back on undergraduate education and is full of overpaid, underworked professors. He is concerned about the inadequate state of affairs in postsecondary education in this country. Our college graduates cannot read, write, or compute as well as they should. And this, I submit, is also affected by multiple-choice testing.
Things have changed dramatically since I was an undergraduate. Learning was more fun then. People not only talked with one another, they debated, discussed, and, yes, emoted over intellectual matters. This doesn't seem to happen in an objective testing environment. (One has to ask, was the bland 1988 Presi4dential campaign perhaps a byproduct of 30 years of a different system of testing in education?)
One fundamental principle must become the centerpiece of American education at all levels if we are to regain any degree of competence and competitiveness: A thought unexpressed is incomplete.
Youngsters must be forced to express themselves, in free-form, essay mode, for a whole variety of reasons.
First, they need to learn for themselves if complete understanding has occurred. When they find out that voids exist, they will then know that there is an urgent need to learn more--to understand.
Thus, when a youngster is asked, Why did Christopher Columbus come to America? the question becomes a many-faceted experience. Maybe, for the first time, he or she will be forced to synthesize an answer.
But just as important is the need to practice written self-expression. Too few youngsters have too few opportunities to express themselves on paper. The multiple-choice test robs them of that wonderful experience. Like any skill, it takes practice, practice, practice. Whether you want to excel at tennis, golf, basketball, or writing, it is all the same. Practice, practice, practice.
When I taught business statistics to college juniors, I always gave essay tests. Questions such as, What is the meaning of a standard deviation? provide a wealth of fertile turf for discussion, elaboration, and, most of all, true understanding. To ask a student just to compute a standard deviation is not useful because after obtaining the answer, he or she may have no notion of its meaning or significance.
We ask students in trigonometry to compute the tangent of an angle. And while many can do that, far fewer ever understand this vitally important concept of science. The concept of a tangent is profound. It represents the rate of change. What could be more fundamental to such fields as physics, economics, or engineering? But yet, most students learn that a tangent is a number gotten by dividing one value by another value, with little (or no) appreciation for its monumental meaning.
So many youngsters abhor mathematics and fear any involvement in it because they have learned simply to plug numbers into formulae. Without understanding the elegant concepts behind those formulae, they cannot appreciate the associated beauty and excitement; they become utterly confused and frustrated, and they want no more of it.
So it is the Why questions and the practice in written expression that must be reinfused into our schools.
The exciting thing about the College Board's decision to include essay questions in the sat of the future is that it might force teachers to realize that the multiple-choice mentality is ruining our students. And, since teachers and schools are now "graded" in 22 states on average sat scores, the administrations of those states will be forced the change with the times.
Not only can this result in changes in those 22 states, but in all states as well. Good scores seem to be the standard that differentiates almost all schools today; to encourage teachers to spend the time necessary to grade essay exams, rather than rely on multiple-choice questioning, is a welcome omen.
But listen up, school administrators. You will need to take some of the administrative work from teachers. They will need less paperwork, fewer traffic duties, fewer cheerleading duties, and the like if they are to perform this important function.
I truly hope that the new sat means the American educational system will soon be on a roll again.
Martin B. Solomon is vice-president for computing and communications at the University of South Caraolina
Bias Is Embedded in All Standardized Aptitude Tests
Volume 10, Issue 19, January 30, 1991, pp 32,34
Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.
Bias Is Embedded in All Standardized Aptitude Tests
By R. Richard Banks
Social-science researchers often "prove" what they already believe
to be true,
or formulate and "test" a hypothesis which they've already decided to be correct.
In such an approach, a question becomes a rationale for "discovering" an answer the researcher already holds dear. The answer, ostensibly derived from unbiased scientific inquiry, conveniently buttresses deeply held beliefs and assumptions.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more common than in the creation and use of standardized aptitude tests.
The attempt by the College Board to reform the Scholastic Aptitude Test, perhaps the most widely used and influential standardized test in the nation, is futile. Bias is so embedded in the sat and similar tests that it becomes difficult to recognize, much less weed out.
The development of the granddaddy of aptitude tests, the iq test, aptly demonstrates the fundamental bias of such tests. In the early stages of design, researchers administered their iq test to samples of schoolchildren. In sample after sample, girls scored higher than boys, which led researchers to conclude (what else?) that there must be some fault in the test. The test was reformulated until boys performed well enough to satisfy the researchers' unexamined assumption.
Not surprisingly, on the sat girls continue to score an average of 60 points below boys, although girls' high-school and college grades are better.
When poor or minority youngsters perform poorly on standardized aptitude tests, the conclusion is not that something is5p6wrong with the test but that something is wrong with the child. Given the same data, different assumptions spawn different conclusions.
Distorted assumptions and conceptual biases have rendered most aptitude tests practically useless for their stated purpose, but incredibly effective at the hidden agenda of social control and legitimation of mobility structures.
Before the test is even administered, one knows which groups of students will perform well and which won't. The testing outcome serves to validate the limited educational opportunities offered some children and the abundant opportunities presented to others.
Aptitude tests such as the sat could be dismissed as foolishness, as trivial games, were they not so prevalent and influential. Beginning in childhood, one's potential to achieve can be expanded or, more often the case with low-income and minority children, constricted by an aptitude-test score.
On the basis of low aptitude-test scores, children are denied admission to prestigious private schools, are placed into "slow" classes, and are not expected to achieve by teachers who interpret low test scores as a reason not to demand excellence.
We need a new concept of ability, a concept more skill-specific and distinct and less unitary and universal. This new concept would encompass and recognize a multitude of different abilities, each important in its own way.
David McClelland, a professor at Harvard University, has written convincingly for many years on the importance of testing for competence (a specific identifiable skill) rather than for intelligence or aptitude, which is some mythical generalized ability. In spite of the nearly unassailable argument he presents, we have been slow to heed his counsel.
Aptitude tests, as part of the admissions procedure for elite undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools, still open, or close, the gate to the higher echelons of society. Piecemeal changes in the sat, even a new name, won't alter this reality.
R. Richard Banks is a former director of the Upward Bound program at Stanford University.
The Privatization of Teacher Education
Volume 10, Issue 19, January 30, 1991, pp 32,34
Copyright 1991, Editorial Projects in Education, Inc.
The Privatization of Teacher Education
By James P. Steffensen
Amid the increasing calls today for a national energy policy is the occasional warning that the absence of a national education policy portends the bankruptcy of our urban schools and a resulting disaster as great perhaps in its consequences as that in the Gulf. Yet, the ensuing dialogues in each instance have centered upon cosmetic solutions involving little national sacrifice. Save energy by taxing high gas-consuming cars. Save the schools by improving teacher recruitment or training programs. Action is taken but the eventual crisis nears.
For those who are comfortable with the cost of immediate action but reject, because of cost, halting of the continued decay, teachers have become a scapegoat of classic definition. Their accessibility to public scrutiny, their partial guilt and powerlessness as a body absent professional status, and their importance all combine to make the teaching workforce a sure target. It is a target for those frustrated with schooling in America, hungry to do something about the situation, and yet unwilling to fund promises of lengthy, politically and fiscally costly, systemic school reform.
So other remedies surface. Ever superficial, they are thus nonetheless welcome. They postpone facing national priorities, yet show awareness and concern. By definition, they are inexpensive. The teacher-education community, faced with an endless siege of adversarial public questioning, has long reacted defensively. It nurtures a cottage industry of non-incremental activities ignorant of any unifying agenda. Those professing a national concern are encouraged to compete for scarce federal funds which provide marginal dollars for projects called research or demonstration. The crisis is addressed, distress is evidenced, political acumen is displayed, and action, however important or relevant, is proclaimed.
Private or federal funding of national reform efforts--whether partnerships with schools to face common problems or the preparation of dialogue and analyses highlighting the nation's economic, social, and security needs--have long existed. They have typically served non-operational functions, addressing with the schools common goals that neither could pursue alone.
Recognizing that schools, teachers, and students are in a crisis and that taxes are high, there has emerged a new proposition. Private funding would operate with sole accountability programs, which until recently have been viewed as a public responsibility. Using private funds for public purpose in the absence of public accountability, however, has typically been associated with, say, religious or charitable groups. It may be competitive with long-held precepts assigning public responsibility. The growth of the academy in areas facing school integration was an example. Why not teacher education?
Among several examples of private funding of operational activities of public education, the most highly publicized has been the New York City-based Teach for America, now in its first year of operation. It clearly exemplifies the entry of private funding with unilateral responsibility for operational areas of public education. TFA cited the elevation of the intellectual level of the teaching force as one long-overdue solution to the crisis in schooling, and sets that as its prime goal. This is done through a selective teacher-recruiting strategy that emphasizes the importance of SAT scores to that workforce.
I met with the leadership of Teach for America half a dozen times as they reviewed the operational means necessary to implement this goal. I had worked with the federal Teacher Corps for a number of years. Teach for America was planning a summer institute somewhat similar to those the Teacher Corps operated prior to its demise a decade ago and sought my views. TFA's strategy for achieving its primary objective was straightforward. One, recruit only from colleges known for high SAT scores. Two, promise those recruits a minimum of pedagogy during the training prior to actual teaching.
This strategy, posited TFA, would in itself improve the quality of teaching and learning opportunities for children of families of the underclass and the excluded, while holding constant the conditions of work. Operationally, the group prepared a roster of 100 "top" colleges from which 500 bright, motivated graduates with high SAT's could be recruited for two-year stints as school teachers. They would be 1990 graduates of Bates, Bowdoin, Hamilton, Haverford, Rice, Reed, Smith, Swarthmore, Tufts, Trinity, and 90 other colleges. Following an eight-week training session, the 500 would join a school faculty, raising its mean SAT score and thus satisfying a high Teach for America priority.
Teach for America proposed to prepare its recruits for entry into a classroom just as they are prepared in many colleges of education today. But it would provide the same field and theoretical experience in eight weeks, not two years. Education majors, with lower SAT scores, are just not as swift as TFA recruits.
An extended absence from this country left me uninformed of the group's progress. But my interest was rekindled by a July 9 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Marcella Spruce, a graduate of a top college who had left teaching recently. Her commentary, "The Youthful Arrogance of Teach for America," described the TFA recruits as undergoing a two-year "proletarian experience before moving on to a real job." (I found equally distressing the fact that it was Teach for America's goal to seek people of color, yet it excluded from its Top 100 roster every historically black, state-supported university in the nation.)
Believing the Teach for America recruits were destined to remain
oblivious of basic teaching skills, as well as of the pains and joys
that go with 30--not two--years in an urban classroom, Ms. Spruce
likened TFA to Indiana Jones, saving our young people from the dullards
now staffing our schools. She found this naive and insulting to the
classroom incumbents, soon to work beside those bright young recruits.
This attack drew a reply in the July 31 Times from the dean of the
education school at the University of Southern California, site of
Teach for America's eight-week summer institute, who found the recruits
a dandy group and the Indiana Jones reference inappropriate.
The staffing of classrooms for a nation's system of free and public education deserves better. It should not rely upon a plinth of pro bono services, donated personnel or materials, or an annual fund drive. Over 15 years, the Teacher Corps received half a billion dollars of appropriated funds. Other federal and state, as well as private or foundation funds for improving teacher education were multiples of Teacher Corps'. These were and are minor compared with the far larger amounts expended at the state and local levels. But the former were marginal, venture dollars in a sense, and remain vital resources to teacher selection and education reform.
The public image of teacher education and teacher-recruitment policy, however, suggests that little residue remains from those expenditures. It is an image that draws a concerned public and a besieged education community toward desperate, albeit unrealistic, reform efforts such as Teach for America. Such projects have a history of short life spans because they are planned to have short life spans. Replication, continuity, cost-effectiveness are alien terms, considered neither intellectually nor fiscally germane. My Teacher Corps experience would suggest that Teach for America, through the 1990 summer institute, cost $8 million (including eight weeks of lost-opportunity time for 500 of our best and brightest).
Estimated costs per intern can be enormous if a program assays the replicability of its successes based on a single event. Replication, if feasible, among the nation's countless non-funded sites drops that cost dramatically. The difficulty of measuring unit costs contributed to Teacher Corps' decline and later demise. Yet, on a short-term basis, Teach for America-like projects are attractive. Action, however ill-conceived, is shown.
Public education remains public business today. It does seem important, however, to debate soon the viability of funding and managing solely with private dollars what has been viewed hitherto as a public responsibility.
Isolated projects, if publicized too soon and too highly, only delay long-overdue but necessary preparation by serious people of a serious design of the future of our urban schools. They serve as radar chaff, deflecting rigorous efforts at reform away from reason and toward, instead, a concentration on the teaching act. Absent such colloquy, teaching will stay less competitive for talent with other occupations, a hobby not a vocation, a way point to a real job, or a supplement to an annuity from a long career in a prior life.
Perhaps saddest, education will remain a total local responsibility, with a nod of the head to the state, leaving the nation as bereft of an education policy as it is of an energy policy. Politicians, practitioners, and the public are in a constant state of confusion as to what response the nation's leaders are considering to an impending crisis of epic proportions.
James P. Steffensen held numerous posts over three decades in the U.S. Office of Education and the U.S. Education Department. He was associate director of the Teacher Corps.