Critical Thinking and Pleasant Articulation

In the attached article, a recently retired high school teacher explains the troubling trend in education because of the high focus on standardized tests. While he attributes the problems to the federal policies of the last decade, the focus on standardized tests is not new and the side effects were present even 20 years ago, just not a prevalent. In the 1991-2 school year, I tutored a college freshman who was failing her International Relations class. The problem, as it turned out, was that she had never taken essay style tests and had never been responsible for taking notes in class in preparation for an essay style test. Yet she had graduated with honors from one of the best high schools in the nation.

The concerning issue highlighted in this article is the notion of “bad writing” as a scheme to excel on rubric graded writing. I am seeing the results of this type of thinking in my husband’s undergraduate classes and my graduate classes (online education affords us the opportunity to evaluate the other student’s ability to write). I have even had one graduate level professor criticize my work (with rubric attached) highlighting the dysfunction of the system.  While I do not claim to be a literary genius, it is very disconcerting when a young professor is more concerned with checking boxes than with evaluating form and function. While more experienced professors seek a well-supported thesis, the younger ones are concerned more with whether every point of a lecture is covered, almost in bullet regurgitation in order to stay within a prescribed word count.

But this is not a completely new problem, just one more common as all facets of education require ease of grading.

Not all disciplines follow the same writing style and the variations can be troublesome for students who have not learned flexibility in writing. Many years ago a great conversation with a fellow student highlighted this point. She had received a poor grade on her paper and had been told to see mine for a comparison. She was appalled to find out that I had not followed the same essay format she had learned in high school English class. I explained that the standard essay she had learned under the strict tutelage of her high school instructor was not what our International Relations professor wanted us to write. He wanted us to write a critical essay highlighting what we THINK!  What a notion – someone not only asking us to think but asking us to write it down. Students need to practice multiple styles of writing in order to gain the comfort of flexibility.

Thinking and standardized tests can sometimes cause problems for students, as I have witnessed with one of my two teens. My son, a person who sometimes thinks too much, receives decent scores on standardized tests, but not the stellar scores his younger sister receives. The instructor in the Washington Post article mentioned some of his students had taken Algebra in eighth grade. My son was taking physics when he began taking his ACTs and had a real struggle with the math section. It had been too long since he had seen simple math problems. Once he pulled out his old books and spent some time reviewing the simple, his math scores came up to snuff.

My daughter’s experience with the testing is slightly different because she likes to avoid analyzing but loves data. She is my ultra-creative child who has a near perfect memory.

My goal has been to teach my children to think, analyze, and then think some more. This had not been an easy task. My dedication to this task has left my children less prepared for the standardized tests they are required to take in order to get into the schools of their choice, but it was a risk worth taking. In the long run test scores will do little for them, but critical thinking and pleasant articulation will serve them for a life time.

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