Recently, an eighth-grade standardized English test gained notoriety when students started going around repeating the moral of a fable in it over and over like some kind of private joke.
Comprehension questions following the nonsensical story were so confusing that state officials, spurred by the notoriety, pulled them from the test. Anti-testing advocates, meanwhile, have taken up the pineapple story as their banner.
This “pineapple incident,” as spotlighted by The New York Times, reminded me of last year when I wrote about the anti-testing, anti-homework documentary Race to Nowhere after a screening with Pam Redela, a faculty member in the women’s studies department at Cal State San Marcos.
Pam showed the film because she’d seen a real change in her incoming students in the last five years or so. More and more they seemed unprepared for critical thinking, learning, and college in general. She felt this was directly linked to the culture of testing so dominating our nation’s schools since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLBA).
“As a college teacher, I see what these policies have done to my incoming student population,” she told me. Statistics back Pam up.
A majority of more than 1,000 college and university presidents surveyed said that public high school students are arriving at college less prepared than students were a decade ago.
Race to Nowhere made Pam’s case in a visceral way. Some at the screening were moved to tears watching children breakdown on screen because their lives were so dominated by homework, testing, and unreal academic pressures. This, only to find that not only did their health suffer, but so did their ability to actually perform once they arrived at the colleges they’d been trying to get into for so long.
According to both Pam, and Race to Nowhere, cramming for tests and then promptly forgetting the information to prepare for the next one is not the best way to develop critical thinking skills, or even a wide base of knowledge.
At the time I first saw Race to Nowhere I was a stay-at-home mom with a 4 and 1-year-old, concerned about what my kids would find in a post NCLB educational system as they prepared to enter it. But I’ve been thinking about the film a lot again lately.
Having returned to a former post as part-time faculty at a local private college I now see for myself the students on the other end of this race.
After two-and-a-half years of being gone, I now see trends that, in hindsight, I should have had inklings of a couple of years before I left. Though I continue to teach in the same ways, with the same emphasis on varied types of learning and measurements, my students have changed.
They’re more hesitant to enter discussions than before, more scared to be wrong. Each quarter they seem to ask a week earlier exactly what’s going to be on the midterm. Then they look at me like a lawyer and say, “So this, and nothing else is what’s going to be on the test?”
When the pineapple story hit this week, even the tale's original author Daniel Pinkwater got involved, telling The New York Times, “Well give me a break. It’s a nonsense story and there isn’t an option for a nonsense answer.”
But Pinkwater also noted his delight at the student’s perceptions about how ridiculous the story was, as he’d well intended it to be. I would agree, and am made hopeful by the fact that these kids speaking out led to some change, however small.
Perhaps the pineapple incident does illustrate some of what's wrong with standardized testing and its prevalence in our schools. But it also represents the immutable spirit our children possess to advocate for themselves as they come into their own.
My incoming freshman may be gun-shy and more obsessed with cramming than thinking, but it doesn’t take much for them to begin to emerge from these shells. By week five, discussions are usually roiling.
So perhaps if institutions of higher learning have any hope of teaching students who are less and less prepared to learn, it’s in teaching them to do what college has always been good at: being critical of their own surroundings and questioning what they were raised on. In this time-honored way some of them can one day make more changes in education than just pulling a few questions from a test.
As a mom of two quickly growing kids, I can only hope it happens soon.