Posted February 15th 2012 at 8:06 am by
in Education

We Need Problem Solvers, Not Test Takers

We have a problem and, I believe, our future depends on solving it.

Just finished a week devoted almost entirely to MCAS preparation at the urban charter school where I am a special education teacher. The MCAS is the high stakes test students take in Massachusetts in compliance with the federal legislation known as No Child Left Behind.

We Need Problem Solvers, Not Test Takers

Practicing the test is a ritual we repeat four times a year. That means four times each year the school shuts down for the first half of Monday and Tuesday as students silently grind through faux high stakes tests. Monday math. Tuesday reading comprehension. Wednesday the tests are scored. Thursday and Friday we teachers spend hours out of the classroom, examining tons of data generated by the tests and developing elaborate, individualized plans to increase scores for the real deal in March.

That leaves very little time for actual learning or exchanging ideas. Last week teachers speculated that the full moon was having a bad effect on our students’ behavior. Certainly the kids were mad wack, which is how our mostly black student population would describe their behavior. Did the teachers really think the moon was to blame?

I realized while watching my own students go, well … mad wack, that their approach to testing almost guaranteed failure. I begged them to complete their tests. Bribed them with gum and promises of free time on the computer. I even gave them the answers and they still crumbled. They threw test booklets. Cried. Stormed around. Sulked. I wondered how they would ever be able to solve the problems of their violent neighborhoods and the poverty that eats many of them up, if they couldn’t just suck it up and finish a test. Every one of my students has experienced street violence, either personally or through a relative, friend or neighbor.

My co-teacher and I decided to spend Tuesday afternoon learning how our urban fourth graders solve problems. We put the desks in a circle, presented the kids with a series of real life situations and then asked them how they would react. Here is a sample of the students’ responses.

Scenario One: It is time to go out but you can only find one shoe. What would you do?

• I would get mad and wish the shoe would just come back to me.

• I would build air plane wings so I could fly around and find it.

Scenario Two: You forgot your lunch money. What would you do?

• Starve.

• I would scrounge around on the floor until I found money. If no one was looking, I would take it. People don’t even care about money these days.

Scenario Three: An old lady has dropped her groceries. What would you do?

• I would pick up the groceries, give her money and trip the robber who tried to steal the money.

• Yeah and I’d break his neck.

Scenario Four: You missed your bus. What would you do?

• I would run after it and pop the tire.

• I would get a ladder and put it in front of the bus so the driver would think it broke down.

• I get on at the first stop so I would run as fast as I could to get to the last stop.

Scenario Five: Your teacher has directed you to color with an orange crayon but you don’t have one. What would you do?

• I would mix yellow and red.

• I would go to the crayon factory.

At the beginning of this school year we teachers were regaled with last year’s grim test scores. Once again, the school failed to make Annual Yearly Progress as prescribed by No Child Left Behind. A list of student scores and their teachers’ names from the lowest performing classroom projected on the auditorium’s big screen made the backdrop for our meeting. When I asked if the four weeks we spent taking faux high stakes tests had any bearing on the MCAS scores, our principal said, “No,” without hesitation. Yet here we are, doing it all over again.

Scenario 6: Your students consistently fail to perform well on high stakes tests. What would you do?

• Shame the teachers.

• Take four weeks out of the school year to practice taking faux high stakes tests. Again.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently announced that poverty is more toxic to children’s academic success than even guns. Indeed, their report states, poverty will “disrupt the architecture of the developing brain, thereby influencing behavioral, educational, economic and health outcomes decades and generations later.”

So why take a month out of the school year to torture children on testing that doesn’t even improve their high stakes scores? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give students time to practice solving real problems like what to do when you lose a shoe? After four weeks of practice, my students would surely be able to take a test without freaking out. I believe they would even be ready to examine solutions for the bigger pictures, like how to mend their broken neighborhoods.

Nancy Bloom is a teacher in Boston.

2 responses to “We Need Problem Solvers, Not Test Takers”

  1. Elizabeth Bloom says:

    The message Nancy’s sharing matters to all of us who care about children, education and social justice. The case may be a bit extreme at Boston Renaissance but it reflects the status quo at most US schools. When are we going to start dealing with the underlying causes of school failure? When are we going to stop allowing politicians, along with their corporate cronies in the multibillion dollar testing/textbook industry, to distract us from ground zero economic realities? Bottom line: a child’s test scores are directly connected to very particular socioeconomic factors, i.e., zip code, parents education level and parents income. Blaming and bashing teachers and schools is a cynical and very effective tactic for keeping our eyes OFF the ball.

  2. Andrew Doggett @ Feed The Children says:

    Thank you for this article, Nancy. It brought tears of frustration to my eyes. And I agree with Elizabeth’s reply, too. What’s happening here?? Our own country is stricken by poverty, not to mention countries around the world. This is a grave injustice to humanity. And instead of putting even MORE effort into eradicating it and helping out our fellow humans — which we have the knowledge and resources to do now in the 21st century — far, far too much focus is placed on the archaic school system that was designed in the 1800s to Americanize immigrant children. It doesn’t make sense. In today’s technology age, sitting still and taking tests, each, is a bit outdated. Shouldn’t we be adapting to how children today learn? That is, dynamically, experientially, and in a multi-task sort of way?? It breaks my heart that there is still so much poverty resulting in damaged personalities or damaged livelihoods… and the children don’t have a choice. We fix poverty, we help fix the education system… It is SO time for change… that politicians cannot bring us.