We interrupt our scheduled mid-week quiet time to report on a bit of educational nit-picking. But first, a bit of preamble:
In the interests of improving British education, students here get tested. A lot.* The idea is to make sure all schools meet some minimal standards, then to make the minimal standards higher than minimal, and after that to correct the problems that grew out of or were revealed by any earlier testing, which you do by adding more tests. At the end of which the kids–as Garrison Keillor put it–will all be above average.
Garrison Keillor’s a Minnesota reference that Americans from the other 49 states may or may not recognize and that non-Americans probably won’t. Don’t worry about it. He’s a funny guy but he’s a side issue.
If the answer to all educational problems is to test, it seems fair to ask what they’re testing for.
Why, things they can mark, of course. And more than that, things they can mark easily.
It’s not impossible to mark stuff like deep thought, good writing, and comprehension, but it’s harder than marking yes/no, right/wrong, up/down, which means it costs more, and anyway it involves an element of subjectivity and, um, thought. All that really good stuff is hard to quantify. So if you’re setting up a foolproof system, what you do instead is set standards that make the process–not to mention the product– so prefabricated that you’re no longer worrying about fluff like thought and good writing, you’re checking whether the kids have done what they were asked–sorry, make that told–to do.
And there we have standardized testing. In the lower grades, the schools look good if their kids do well and look bad if they don’t. In the upper grades, ditto, but now the kids’ chances in life depend on doing well. So the schools teach to the tests and everything narrows down.
Isn’t childhood fun? Don’t you just wish you were a kid again?
When the national average on the tests does down, everyone panics. Our kids aren’t learning. Our schools aren’t teaching. Our country’s falling apart. And when they do do well? A smaller number of people panic, but they do it so well that surely the numbers don’t count. The tests have been dumbed down. Too many kids passed. We’re not asking enough of them.
So, that’s the preamble.
In the most recent primary school tests, kids lost points because their commas weren’t perfectly curved and their semicolons had floated too far away from the words they followed.
The directions for people marking the tests are so specific that if I were grading papers I’d need a see-through ruler. And Prozac. One section says, “The comma element of the semicolon inserted should be correct in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation. . . Where the separation of the semicolon is excessive, neither element of the semicolon should start higher than the the letter ‘I’. The dot of the semicolon must not be lower than the letter ‘w’ in the word ‘tomorrow.’ ”
Which is very different from the “w” in the word “water.”
In spite losing points for straight commas and oversized semicolons, 61% of the kids met their targets in reading, writing, grammar, and math, compared with 53% last year.
Which proves the tests have been dumbed down and the country’s falling apart.
- A cross-party committee of MPs warned that the some of the tests were endangering both kids’ learning and their well-being. So far, that doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down.