I went to kindergarten and elementary school in Mexico until the third grade, then we moved to El Paso when I started the fourth grade. It wasn’t until I moved to El Paso that I learned of the concept of constant testing and multiple-choice tests. Before then, the exams in Mexico were oral or practical, especially in math. But that was just the first few grades of elementary school. Maybe I would have encountered multiple-choice tests later on had I stayed back there?
Currently, I’m the lead teaching assistant for a class on the public health significance of HIV/AIDS. As the professor and I were talking with the students about the different expectations we had of them for the course, the questions from the students kept going back to the midterm exam. (There is a final paper, no final exam.) The midterm exam counts for 20% of the final grade, but the students were asking all sorts of questions. They wanted to know what was going to be included in the exam, if they were going to be required to answer any essay questions, etc. After several questions, I decided to put an end to it.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “Keep in mind that the midterm exam is only 20% of your final grade. You can bomb it and still get an A in the course. What the assignments are meant to do is to test your ability to think critically about a very important public health problem.” In other words, they needed to relax about an exam and focus on the other assignments. One assignment is a group presentation where the students take some important aspect of HIV/AIDS and analyze it top to bottom. The other assignment is a paper taking another aspect of HIV/AIDS and public health and analyzing it while giving some suggestions or explaining known ways of confronting the issue.
Those two assignments — the presentation and the paper — are aimed fully at giving the students the tools they will need for their careers in public health. They’re going to have to do research. They’re going to have to work in teams. They’re going to have to look at a problem and “science the crap out of it,” so to speak. It’s not enough to know things that you can answer via a multiple-choice exam. And it’s not enough to throw data at a black box and come up with something on the other end. (I’m looking at you, biostatistical models.)
This is why I think that the professor’s grading scheme for this class is great. Take away the grading based on knowledge and put those points into grading based on wisdom. So why can’t we do the same with the rest of the educational system?
I think one of the answers is just sheer volume. There are just too many children in public schools and not enough teachers to teach them. Or, if there are enough teachers, those teachers themselves came from an educational system that demanded nothing but multiple-choice, standardized testing through and through. Remember, No Child Left Behind and its strict requirements for testing, re-testing and testing some more is now 14 years old. A child in kindergarten at the time it was passed is now a freshman in college. Chances are, they’ve known nothing but standardized testing.
Seriously, from what I’ve seen as a teaching assistant the last two years, and what I saw in the many people who applied to work at the health department while I was there… And what I’ve seen in students ten to fifteen years younger than me sitting in some classes, standardized testing has killed their ability to think critically. They study by memorizing fact after fact, while almost completely forgetting the meaning and significance of the knowledge they’ve gained.
They’ve lost the wisdom of it all. Or, rather, they were never taught it.
So what do we do instead? How can you re-work a public education system that spans 50 states that cannot agree with each other on many levels? Just look at the brouhaha over Common Core, evolution vs. intelligent design, and other academic themes. Can you really see everyone agreeing to move away from cheap, easy standardized testing and move back to a more practical form of education? Sadly, I can’t. I hope it happens, but I just don’t see it happening.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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