Do students face too many tests?

December 12, 1997

The last academically sanctioned tests I took were the entrance exams for law and graduate schools. For the graduate school exam I studied rather like one would study for Jeopardy - general knowledge-type stuff - and received a moderately acceptable score.

For the law school exam, however, I got a textbook specifically designed to unlock the mysteries of the LSAT. I studied it on and off for a week while I was bartending, skimming over chapters in between carrying coal miners their 16 ounce glasses of Busch. I knocked the LSAT out of the park, scoring in the top 2 percent nationwide.

The book didn't impart any particular knowledge, but with the precision of a Swiss watch it taught how to outsmart the test.


It taught so well that many times on test day it wasn't even necessary to read the entire question. You read a few words, got the gist of the question, equated it with one of the patterns described in the book and checked off an answer.

I still remember a few real-world things I learned while studying for the graduate school entrance exam; I can say uncategorically that I learned nothing of use studying for the LSAT.

Tests seem to top everyone's agenda these days, from President Clinton to state superintendent Nancy Grasmick to the local board of education. This week Maryland adopted a new set of tests (in addition to the much-debated performance tests) that high schoolers will be required to pass in order to graduate.

Last school year I talked at length with a teacher who gave a level-headed assessments of tests in general and the performance tests in particular.

Right up front she acknowledged the value - the need - for testing. Without tests you can't accurately say in which areas children are succeeding and in which areas they are deficient. And tests can determine how well teachers are performing, as well.

This teacher had no trouble exposing her kids or herself to such yardsticks. What bothered her was this: From day one, teachers in the testing grades have to teach with an eye toward the exams. Further, the performance tests were to be evaluated, and based on those evaluations, significant changes were to be made in the schools. So far, she said, that hadn't happened.

Several other teachers I've talked to agree: The tests, at least in part, are driving the curricula. And to my mind, time spent learning testing structures is time wasted - time when kids could be learning real, usable information that will help them with their careers.

The argument on the other side, as I understand it, is that these tests measure a kid's ability to think in clear, logical terms. Knowing how to solve problems is more important that pat answers. It's the idea, I suppose, that it is better to teach a person to grow wheat than to give him a loaf of bread.

If I may lift a sentence from the Maryland Education Coalition, "By teaching to the test, instruction will be improved because the skills and information needed to pass the test (such as reading, mathematics, group work and problem solving) are skills needed in the world."

Perhaps. But I can't help believing that skills needed to pass the test and skills needed in the world aren't exactly one in the same. Classroom realities often have trouble molding themselves to administrative theories.

It's beautiful if a kid can calculate the time two passenger trains will pass if one leaves Hagerstown at 35 miles and another leaves Baltimore at 49 miles an hour. But if you haven't learned that no passenger trains run between here and Baltimore to begin with, you're going to be waiting on the platform a long time.

Business says kids can't read and write well enough to hold jobs. Headhunters in the cities can earn $10,000 for each talented computer operator they hire away from other firms. Here in Washington County, the lack of high-salaried jobs is blamed on a poorly educated public.

Testing is going to help? Help more than intensified training in reading, writing, computers and other real world job skills that business is demanding?

Maybe it will; maybe they've found a key in testing that will open the full potential of kids' brains. But exercising a child's test-taking muscle is like a boxer only working on his biceps. It may look great when you bring out the tape measure, but unless he's trained all over he won't win any fights.

At some point you have to say that tests will saturate the system to the point they interfere with education. I wonder if we haven't reached that point right now. After all, there aren't a lot of job openings for graduates who have been trained specifically to ace exams.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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