On my travels through Cambodia this summer, I debated on whether to bring an expensive but incredible toy, my ipod touch. (A) because I thought I wouldn’t use it that much and (B) I didn’t want to get it stolen or lost. Well, at the last minute, I decided to take it just in case. It turns out that it was probably the most important item I brought save my passport and clean underwear. Why? Well, there were many hours I spent waiting and long bus rides with blaring Cambodian music and I could withdraw into my musical sanctum. Besides getting very addicted to the app Scrabble, I had some TED videos saved on there as well.
I watched the TED talk by Bill Gates on Mosquitos, Malaria and Education. Mr. Gates in addition to being a successful billionaire is also a philanthropist. I do respect him for this. Besides trying to find a cure for malaria, he is also deeply interested in improving America’s educational system. This is where it gets interesting (at least for me).
If you haven’t watched it and don’t have time to watch the beginning part about malaria, skip to the 7:55 mark where he talks about education.
Now, he is right about one thing. The american educational system is suffering. However, he rationalizes that the problem is that the US doesn’t have enough exceptional teachers. What does he use as his main supporting evidence for this claim? Test scores. I cringe every time I hear these two words. I am very thankful that I wasn’t brought up as a student in this environment nor do I have to teach in it. Now, this is where things get sticky. Well, standardized test scores have their place, they should NOT be the sole indicator for students achievement, a school’s achievement and especially not an indicator of the effectiveness of a teacher!
Here is my list of the 5 biggest problems with standardized tests:
1. They are typically culturally biased and ethnocentric-Many of these questions have reading passaged that are based on a north american’s culture. I remember giving a reading assessment on a passage about baseball to some of my korean students. The questions ask about homeruns and rules that would be much easier if she had of seen or played baseball before.
2. Performance-based tests can cause increase anxiety and stress-Imagine that for every unit of study, you would be asked to stand up on stage while a professor grills you about what you have learned. That’s how some students feel under these types of conditions.
3. Only measure one kind of learning modality-Standardized tests are usually in the form of multiple choice or short answer. This rewards students who are visual and logical learners and not those who learn through kinesthetic, auditory, intrapersonal, etc.
4. Only reward students for the “right answer” and not correct thinking– This is why Mathematics professors design tests which give points to students fo the correct thought process, even if they don’t get the right answer.
5. Does not measure attitudes and creative thinking– Standardized tests are usually one dimensional. What about students attitudes towards a subject area or original thinking?
So if all these inherent problems exist with standardized tests, why are we basing funding for schools on this alone? Why are we using these test scores to determine who is an “exceptional teacher” and who is not? While I will give Mr. Gates some points for actually asking a more important question, what qualities does an effective teacher exhibit? I think that many teachers do plateau in their teaching methodology unless challenged to learn from others.
Teaching is only one of the small factors in improving America’s educational system. I think more importantly, school’s need: smaller class sizes, more funding for resources, improved professional development, increased teacher support roles and improved facilities just to name a few. I believe Bill Gates whose heart is in the right place but his head just needs to be steered into the right direction.