Yesterday I was following a news story on PBS News Hour about the ongoing decline of the national education system, about plummeting standardized test scores, declining literacy, holding teachers accountable, etc. I was only half-watching/listening between from the kitchen, the woman being interviewed (I wish I’d caught her name and title because it would give her and myself a little more credibility) was saying how a teacher can’t be evaluated accurately through test scores alone, and gosh that brought up some memories from public school.
I remember thinking back in middle school that we seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time on TAAS prep, TAAS being the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, the standardized assessment test of my childhood State. I’m sure it’s not much different than other tests given around the US: reading, writing, math. As if History, Social Sciences, Science, and the Arts don’t matter.
Well, I suppose they’re wider, richer, more “subjective” subjects which are harder to pin down in a standardized way. Grammar and mathematics do have, in a sense, a number of finite rules that can be mastered, whereas something like History can go on and on and on depending how in depth you want to go, not to mention emphasis on one part of history or another. Cite the example of how MUCH time we spent on the Civil War every year, so much so that World War I and II had to be relegated to succinct nods of acknowledgement before the end of the school year. I’ve discovered since moving to the West Coast that there’s quite a different sort of emphasis. For instance, one of my coworkers did not know what Emancipation Day / Juneteeth was.
Anyway, back to the TAAS test. In middle school I remember they started us on practice tests, older versions of the actual test. English class taught us “critical reasoning skills” which would come into play on a certain portion of the test, and math class taught us word problems of a variety identical to what we’d be seeing in coming years. TAAS (pronounced like “toss”) was always floating around, so much so that it began to sound more like a game of catch. The actual test didn’t happen until my Sophomore year of high school, and by that point all the faculty were in such a frenzy all learning was funneled into TAAS. Teachers were going to be evaluated based on our scoring, and scoring was low, so that didn’t bode well.
I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what was going on back then, in fact I don’t even remember taking the real test, just a vague recollection of silent dimly lit classrooms filled with sniffling and page-turns and silky scrawl of No. 2 pencils. I just remember a sense of profound disappointment with the system when it was all over. It’s like no one knew what to teach after that. Post-TAAS to graduation two years later was underwhelming even in the Honors and AP track. There was a little bit of SAT prep going on, I remember, and I signed up for a couple different AP tests, but nothing on the order of the TAAS test. I still remember my senior AP English teacher telling us that she wasn’t going to teach, was just going to assign readings and essays etc., because that’s how they’re going to be in college. College prep, eh? Hmm.
I always felt like our public school system was just barely holding on by its fingernails, always on the verge of being taken over by the State because of its low test scores. I don’t know. The woman interviewed on PBS had a point, you can’t evaluate teachers and overall learning by test scores alone. Put too much emphasis on scores and the they’ll start teaching for the test, which is a terribly narrow learning thread. But if bad is bad, then what?
There’s student-teacher evaluations, sure, but I remember those from school too. The teacher would leave the room while someone else supervised, and we filled out these forms with vague repetitive questions, and I know so many of my vindictive, angry little schoolmates took that moment to write something pointed and unconstructive, and very likely containing spelling and grammatical errors. Adolescents and teenagers cannot be relied upon to separate emotion from action and give a rational, accurate evaluation of a thing … But again, if bad is bad …?
In the news story I also heard an interesting comment, that graduates are leaving school without necessary job skills. I didn’t think that education was supposed to be synonymous with job training. Sure, there’s some overlap, and some basic skills that are musts prior to employment (reading, writing, math), but you should be getting that basic education for its own sake, not because it’s a job requirement.
Perhaps we as a nation are becoming to money focused, and that is why our education system is dying? I get that the job market and the economy are tough at present, and I’ve experienced part of that firsthand, though I am fortunate to be doing well for now. However, there’s this sense in today’s economy that nothing is ever going to be enough, from the hours you put in at the office to the amount you’re paid, give and take, nothing is ever going to be enough. Whereas, talk to our friends in Europe, for example, and there isn’t that same sense of urgency.
I really am curious what others think about the decline of the American educational system and about its relationship to the national economic state and way of life.
I could go on rambling, but my lunch break is over, so I suppose it’s time to clock back in ;)