Standardized testing proves ineffective

Cora Thiele

Standardized testing and I have never gotten along very well. Even though I usually pass my exams, I always feel like the tests were designed to make me feel stupid.

I don’t know about you, but after only four weeks into the semester, I’m already dreading that fateful first exam. My brain is already overloaded. It guarantees that any fact I try to memorize will slip out of my cerebellum without leaving the slightest trace. Lectures do not help; they pile information on without letting anything sink in.

Being an innovative thinker really doesn’t help when there are four possible answers on the bubble sheet and none of them seem to apply to the question.

The best professors I’ve had were those who gave the power of choice and innovation to their students and motivated them to take charge of their own learning, rather than maintaining an aloof sense of authority through lecture.

These are not the professors who generally receive tenure or find themselves recruited by big universities. Instead, they are tucked into lesser known spheres of the academic world.

The best instructors I’ve had have been adjunct professors at community colleges. They used hands-on experiential learning to teach critical thinking and communication skills, and they expected their students to think for themselves and engage in the subject matter.

Their tests took weeks to grade and their lessons required diligent work on the part of the student, often utilizing opportunities to learn outside the classroom or even going so far as engaging with the surrounding community in service-learning or apprenticeships. They were effective.

These instructors didn’t fit the mold, but when they taught, I learned. So why is the public education system still based on memorization of facts and structured around standardized testing, if another approach is more functional?

Several psychologists have had a great influence on the way our education system now functions.

Hugo Munsterberg, one of the pioneers of applied psychology, recognized the difficulty presented by the immature and malleable nature of children’s minds.

In his book, “Psychology and Industrial Efficiency”, Munsterberg states that “a mere interest for one or another subject in school is influenced by many accidental circumstances, by the personality of the teacher or the methods of instruction, by suggestions of the surroundings and by home traditions, and accordingly even such a preference gives rather a slight final indication of the individual mental qualities.

Moreover, such mere inclinations and interests cannot determine the true psychological fitness for a vocation.”

He proposed that the schools should account for this immaturity by making all choices for the children by creating a methodical, assembly-line-like, system of knowledge acquisition.

By preparing all students for life in an identical fashion, Munsterberg sought to minimize the possibility of a student arriving at the end of his or her educational carrier unprepared for the vocation for which he or she was best suited.

We have the standardized test and the lecture-based education system in which memorization of fact and figure is valued highly and innovative thinking is discouraged by default.

Unfortunately, he neglected to consider that to become more knowledgeable does not necessarily mean that one has become more wise.

One of Munsterberg’s contemporaries, the philosopher and psychologist John Dewey, postulated a more progressive approach to education that, had it been adopted, would have set education in this country on a very different trajectory. Personally, I wish it had been adopted.

In The Child and the Curriculum, Dewey argues that the child’s capacity to think independently must be respected and incorporated into the learning process in order for learning to occur.

The student must be given the opportunity to relate new information to their own context, relating complex ideas to prior experience and solidifying the truth of new assertions within their existing worldview. In short, gaining wisdom.

Dewey recognized the teacher’s role to be one of mentor and guide to a child as they developed mentally, increasing a child’s ability to interact in meaningful ways with his or her community.

These teachers were charged not with the duty of imparting knowledge, but rather tapping the boundless potential for innovative thought and maturity latent in each of their students.

Some teachers follow Dewey’s model even today. I have been blessed to know a few.

One is a professor here at Northern who chose to make her class entirely discussion-based, ensured that her students walked away from Intro to Marine Biology with a functional understanding of the world’s oceans and their impact on the lives of every living thing. I, for one, will not soon forget the importance of plankton.

One of my first professors at Hibbing Community College, in Minnesota, inspired me not only to courageously set foot on a stage for the first time, but to boldly appeal to local leaders when the community supported theater program was going to be cut from the curriculum.

My anthropology professor from North Hennepin Community College, where I earned my associates degree, charged each of his students to attend a religious ceremony for a faith not their own and inspired me to attend a mosque for the first time.

These are true educators: those who challenge us by believing in our capacity and instill in us the burning need to acquire knowledge in order that we may apply it wisely.

They are the ones who are willing to risk us making mistakes as we learn.

They know the fruit of those mistakes is wisdom and understanding, and these fruits are far more valuable than being able to parrot the Pythagorean theorem or to list the rulers of Europe.

These educators are the ones that will propel us towards the acquisition of knowledge rather than the memorization of fact.