Education Letter to the Editor


March 01, 1995 7 min read
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Contrary to his contention that the exams “don’t work,’' I would like to point out that they not only work in terms of indicating whether students can perform quality work at the college level but also in terms of upgrading a high school curriculum that has been “dumbed down’’ to a point that has become demonstrably ludicrous. Perhaps this has not been true at schools such as Carolina Day School where Roberts teaches, but it has certainly been true in most public schools nationwide.

Roberts’ first objection is directed at the section of the exam that requires students to carefully read various passages of prose or poetry and then answer multiple-choice questions. Although I would take issue with his assertion that “few college humanities professors use multiple-choice questions in their courses,’' he more importantly fails to understand why such questions are part of the exam. In an article published in The College Board Review (Spring, 1989), Eric Wimmers, senior examiner for the Educational Testing Service, explained the validity of such a testing process. He stated that the questions are a test of close reading ability. They force the student to read with discernment, to draw careful inferences, and, perhaps most important, to establish “a boundary where objective understanding ends and subjective response and interpretation begin.’'

Furthermore, Wimmers noted that the questions used in the exam are not those that require “reductive’’ readings of the works (such as “Which of the following is the meaning of Moby Dick?’') but those that require the student to move from the level of comprehension of words and phrases in context “through the recognition of structural patterns, rhetorical procedures, and figures of speech, to the recognition or interpretation of imagery, tone, purpose, genre, and theme.’' In other words, students are being tested on their ability to do close reading.

Roberts believes that Socratic discussion is vital to a good liberal arts curriculum, and he gets no argument there. But any good AP class will devote considerable time to Socratic seminar discussions as a means of preparing students to become close textual readers, a skill that will manifest itself on the very objective test that Roberts objects to. I wonder to what purpose he employs the Socratic process? It is not, after all, an exercise in emotional talk-TV-style venting but an exercise in careful analysis of text. In his definition of open discussion--"students can speak freely, test ideas, and learn from each other as well as from the teacher’'--he neglects to mention the text. Rather than discouraging Socratic discussion, the multiple-choice test is the culmination of real Socratic discussion when careful textual analysis is employed during the year.

This brings us to the written or “free response’’ section of the test. Again Roberts shows a less-than-complete understanding of the exam when he says its purpose is “to test students’ ability in composition.’' That is, at best, an incomplete definition. In the AP teachers’ guide, the College Board acknowledges that the methodology of teaching writing has changed considerably over recent years. “Product’’ has been replaced by “process’’ as an area of emphasis in many school programs. It acknowledges that many teachers question whether they are doing a disservice by emphasizing “invention, development, and revision’’ when students are asked on the exam to write three essays in a two-hour time span. But the board points out that the process of writing begins with the motivation to write. The AP exam presents a concrete goal, a motivation for students that apparently works. Furthermore, the three-essay exam asks for nothing more than a rough or first draft, and it is evaluated as such.

This section of the exam is a test of a student’s ability to read quickly, analyze carefully, follow precise instructions, and then convey a clear, concise answer in writing. The essay exam, then, is far more than a test in composition.

And then there is the question of bias, which has been raised regarding every standardized test used in academic circles. Having taught many minority students in both integrated and segregated schools over the years, I agree that there is a paucity of minority students in AP classes. The reasons for this, as many books, publications, and studies have shown over the past several years, are complex and disturbing. But to suggest that higher-income students can be “prepped’’ to perform better on AP tests is questionable. And to argue that “one generation of high-income children writes the tests for the next generation, thus passing the advantages of the privileged class from generation to generation’’ is superficial and plain silly.

Since 1984, true school reform has been minimal. During that same period, advanced placement programs have proliferated, offering perhaps the one example of positive reform that has taken place in this country. These courses may be one of the few good things schools have done in the past 10 years. They must be retained and allowed to flourish, not radically altered or dropped.

Julian Freund
Park Forest, Ill.

Lesson In Humility

First, I want to let you know that I believe your magazine to be one of the finest, most informative, and most compassionate I’ve ever subscribed to.

Second, I want to say that David Ruenzel’s article “Looking for John Dewey’’ [February] was no less than inspirational. Reading it has helped me see that humility is a key ingredient of a successful teacher.

Ruenzel has reminded me that teaching, like many other creative pursuits, requires an eclectic approach. We teachers must strive to fashion the classroom to the needs and interests of our students as they acquire the skills necessary in the wider world. Yes, teachers are authority figures; but should this authority be used to impose the teacher’s view of how all students “should’’ learn? There is no one way to teach children or to reach students. As John Dewey found, we must truly observe each child and limit our desire to place him or her on a predetermined developmental scale.

To begin anew as each fresh student joins our class requires consistent, roll-up-the-sleeves work. Yes, teaching is a humbling and sometimes awe-inspiring experience.

Andrew Neidich
Bridgeport, Conn.

Pekin Defended

It is unfortunate that David Ruenzel has chosen to preface his excellent factual account of the leadership of high school football coach Dale Patton [“Playing by the Rules,’' November/December] with hearsay about the town in which Patton teaches--Pekin, Ill. Ruenzel does a disservice to both coach Patton and the Pekin community.

The author speaks of the “clean-cut and studiously attentive’’ players on the football team and of the leadership Patton provides in coaching and teaching. These qualities exist today. Why then doesn’t Ruenzel describe the Pekin of today, instead of reporting on the historical reputation of racism that is based to a substantial extent on hearsay and folklore?

I venture that I am in a better position than Ruenzel to assess Pekin’s current characteristics. One year ago, I moved to Pekin from Minnesota to serve as warden of the newly opened Federal Correctional Institution. Our work force of more than 300 corrections professionals includes some 80 African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific-Island, and American Indian staff members.

It is true that the location of the prison here did not come without controversy. Nonetheless, unlike that of other communities, the leadership of Pekin saw that the diversity of our work force would add to the cultural fabric of the city. Since my arrival, relationships with the community have been positive.

I find no more vestiges of racism and bigotry in Pekin than I have seen elsewhere. Few, if any, American communities can claim a pure history with regard to this issue. Yet not all communities are pursuing diversity the way Pekin is. The city has taken very positive steps to ensure fair housing, the emergence of community groups intent on promoting the values of change and diversity, and welcome initiatives by businesses, schools, and churches.

It is clear to me as a newcomer that the great majority of citizens in Pekin sees diversity in our culture to be a key to its future. Remnants of the past may linger here, as everywhere, but they are, day by day, becoming notes in history rather than today’s reality.

It is time Ruenzel and others study Pekin for the steps it is taking and relegate the past to the history books.

David Helman
Pekin, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Letters


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