Letter to the Editor

Real learning goes beyond standardized scores

Monday, December 3, 2018

To the Editor:

Kudos to those Putnam County schools that scored above average on the state accountability exams. By now most people know that Greencastle Schools scored average on those exams. Does this performance make them inferior schools? I would like to offer the following in their defense. The situation certainly is not as dire as the president of the Greencastle School Board presented it at their last meeting.

Average scores on standardized tests does not mean that student learning is absent or average. Anyone who attended the Greencastle High School’s production of “School of Rock” can attest to the extraordinary talent of those students and the dedication and ability of their teacher/director. From such productions a great deal of learning takes place through hard work, self-discipline, cooperation as a cast, and self-actualization. The same can be said for other academic and artistic successes.

Greencastle High School has routinely won state championships in math, science and English academic bowls. At Tzouanakis Intermediate School students likewise have won or placed highly in academic bowl competition. Such honors do not come easily. They, too, require hard work, discipline, dedication and group cooperation.

Attend the next performance of “Puttin’ On The Hits” at Tzouanakis and discover not only the high level of student talent, but, again the amount of student initiative, dedication to a task, and group cooperation.

These examples are but a few, and would also include participation in athletics, student clubs, art and band and choir. All of these are learning experiences: students, teachers and coaches working together to achieve common goals. There is a great deal of student learning that is not necessarily reflected on standardized tests.

As a professor at DePauw for 26 years I found that students entering DePauw with high SAT scores were not always the best students in class. A significant number of students with lower SAT scores did just as well. Why? Because the lower-scoring students were often those who loved learning, had intellectual curiosity, and worked very hard. In fact, I found that these attributes were usually the better predictors of academic success. Give me a highly motivated hard worker any day.

Student learning in academic settings is far too subtle to be adequately captured on state standardized tests. As I have argued, learning takes place across a variety of tasks and experiences in schools. And what is learning? I see learning as a journey of self-discovery as a student discovers the truths of the world. If a senior student does not know him or herself better than when they were first year students, only then has a school failed. Self-knowledge, in my opinion, should be the goal of any academic institution.

Accountability is not a product, and except in business settings where profit as always is the primary goal, has little relevance for schools at any level. Standardized testing, by and large, has been foisted upon public schools by narrow minded politicians who like to think of schools as little GMs. And they are wrong. And teachers, students, and parents need to constantly remind such politicians of their wrong-headedness. However, worse yet, are those politicians who insist on standardized testing because of their animus toward public education itself. They want public schools to fail because they think schools are a drain on taxpayer money and they desire the privatization of schools. Such politicians must also be challenged.

I know many public school teachers and I have yet to hear them speak with affection for standardized testing. With scores on standardized tests as the sole criteria of academic success, teachers must “teach to the test” for their schools to be rewarded. What is lost is creative teaching and the excitement of student learning. I find that all good teachers hold themselves accountable. And they are successful to the degree that politicians leave them alone. Good teachers know how to create exciting learning environments, which in turn lead to student self-discovery. They also know that real learning has taken place, not on a standardized test, but when a student with eager eyes says “Aha!”

Jim Mannon