Recently, the Washington Post published an open letter to college professors from Kenneth Bernstein, a retiring high school teacher, which criticizes the tying of teacher pay to student test performance. In the letter, Bernstein breaks down how many graduating high school seniors are entering college without adequate social studies instruction, in large part because of the focus on multiple-choice exams in order to satisfy President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program:
With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift.
Further, most of the tests being used consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure. Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education.
Furthermore, the proliferation of AP classes, intended to cater to high-level students, has also been hindered by the need to teach toward the test, which demand formulaic, simplistic writing:
If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics.
Bernstein also bemoans the large class size, necessitated by lack of proper funding to hire more teachers, which results in a lack of individualized attention:
Even during those times when I could assign work that required proper writing, I was limited in how much work I could do on their writing. I had too many students. In my final year, with four sections of Advanced Placement, I had 129 AP students (as well as an additional forty-six students in my other two classes). A teacher cannot possibly give that many students the individualized attention they need to improve their writing. Do the math.
At a practical level, a lack of funding and thus a lack of competitive pay for teachers means there will be large class sizes, less high-quality teachers, and the teachers who stick it out will be forced to use formulaic, dumbed-down teaching strategies in order to insure good test results on unhelpful exams that nonetheless decide schools’ funding and their job security. This is a disservice to teachers, to students, and to society at large. Students will reach college without being taught how to think and write critically at a high level. At a broader level, this reflects a lack of respect for liberal arts education and the application of bottom-line, cut-throat business techniques to a discipline that requires deeper thinking and the space, time, and money to prepare children for more than multiple-choice items.