Test-taking isn’t proficiency

Students miss out on the love of learning

One of my nieces was recently named “Student of the Year” by one of our Rotary International chapters. Because her father was working that evening, her proud uncle was invited to accompany her and her mother to the banquet.

In addition to honoring students from several communities, they also named “Teachers of the Year.” One of the teachers, a high school chemistry teacher, had taught in public education for over 30 years. He “retired” and began teaching the same subject at a Catholic high school. 

His introduction stressed his experience in both systems, and, in his acceptance speech, he explained what a pleasure it was to finally be teaching in a system where the “real” results matter. That got everyone’s attention, and he explained that in public education he had been forced to teach for the test. Now he could simply teach chemistry as he should, giving students a real understanding of what they were learning.

You can well imagine that everybody who worked in public education was immediately incensed. He made several other remarks no less flattering. 

I was reminded of a course I had taken years ago. I had gone to the boat show, and one of the vendors offered courses to help people obtain their captain’s licenses. I’m an avid sailor, and I love to learn, so this sounded like a great mid-winter project. 

I signed up, but I’m sorry I did. Instead of teaching us navigation, the international collision regulations, seamanship and all the good stuff, they taught us how to take the exam. They wanted us to pass the licensing exam. Whether or not we became more competent seamen was not much of a consideration.

I have no problem with standardized testing. Who would want to be operated on by a surgeon who never had to pass an exam or climb aboard an airplane flown by pilots who never had to demonstrate their proficiency?

My problem is teaching the exam rather than the subject matter. When I think back to the standardized tests I took, I went to a Catholic high school that had an entrance exam. None of our teachers prepared us for it. We showed up one Saturday morning with our two No. 2 pencils and did the best we could.

Four years later, we had to take the college boards or SAT exam. Same deal — no preparation, just show up with the pencils and do your best. I did very well on both, not because I was brilliant, but because my teachers had taught us all the appropriate subjects, as they should have. The exams were merely verification that we had learned what we were supposed to.

I can tell you that even if you love the subject matter, learning to take an exam is a very boring way to learn anything, and there’s a good chance you could actually pass without ever becoming proficient at what you’re studying.

It took a lot of courage for that chemistry teacher to say what he said. I spoke with him afterward and thanked him. He had a good pension and didn’t need the money; he was teaching because he loved to teach. The best teachers I had, the ones I still remember, loved to teach and made me love to learn. We never worried about the tests, and there were many.

This Rotary Club is on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border and included students and teachers from both states. Our chemistry teacher was teaching in Massachusetts and referred to their MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System).

Here in New Hampshire, our students take the NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program). It doesn’t seem as newsworthy as MCAS, and we may in fact be switching to something else.

Measuring schools and teachers on test results can be a good idea, but shouldn’t taking a short cut to teach taking the tests be strictly prohibited? Don’t we want our kids to not just learn as they should, but also to develop a lifelong desire to learn? 

It’s the only way we can really help our companies be competitive so we can keep our jobs.

Oh, and congratulations Heather! 

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque3@gmail.com.