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Thompson: What's the Real Harm in the Wasting of Post-Test Time?

In Do Lazy June Days Include Too Many Parties and Movies?, The Washington Post's Jay Mathews says that June 1 is "the traditional beginning of parental complaints about how little work is done as the school year nears an end." He cites an Arlington parent who complains, “Every year the standardized tests come and go, and after that the education stops.”

Well duh! The suburban dad should remember that education often stops when the annual test prep season begins. Moreover, this testing teaches lessons about life that I bet most parents would reject.

After further inquiry into what was happening at his son's suburban school after testing finished, the father discovered that more opportunities for learning were still being offered than many would have anticipated. But, he concludes, “Nearly this entire week seems like a waste of time to me.”  I believe Mathews reached a wiser conclusion, "He (the dad) has a point, but given the depth of what his sons have been learning during the year, I’d let it go."

I'd also ask whether schools today have too few parties and movies during their entire year. It is especially worrisome that films and videos aren't used enough to teach cultural literacy. My biggest concern, however, is that accountability pressures are teaching value systems that are disgusting.

My first principal said she could never figure me out - a liberal who held students to high behavioral standards. She wasn't surprised that a former academic's second rule was "work smart," "focus," and "learn how to learn." She couldn't wrap her mind around a free thinker, who taught "creative insubordination," but whose first rule was "work steady from bell to bell."  There were important academic reasons (like avoiding classroom distractions) why I insisted on a rigorous work ethic. The big reason, however, was the real-world need for teens to develop "inner-directedness" and self-control.

By the second semester, freshmen could be held to the same standards as upper-classpersons, which means they couldn't give in to distractions. Especially for seniors, the spring semester was a victory lap where we pulled our year and high school careers together in a celebratory manner. And, before the testing mania, students had field trips and seniors had projects to complete and internships to attend.

My favorite memory of a student being inspired by a senior project was that of a black Republican, Rick (as I'll call him.) Rick claimed that he was such an outstanding intern at a law office (which had been victorious in education cases before the U.S. Supreme Court) that he was allowed to conduct depositions. Given his willingness to say anything in class discussion to refute my liberalism, I took his boast with a grain of salt, as we discussed the legal issues he'd studied in class and in the law office.

But, while walking my dog in the park, a noted attorney came up and spoke effusively about Rick. She said they put him to work taking depositions! 

With freshmen, we explicitly worked to unlearn the bad habits picked up in middle school and to build the adult responsibility that the real world demands. With seniors, we talked frankly about their upcoming transition and their need to wean themselves off grades as a motivator. In order to nurture their internal locus of control, we agreed that second semester grading would be ignored as we focused on the real learning necessary for college and life. As long as we worked hard and we worked smart, I just put A's in the gradebook and we'd concentrate on learning for mastery with a depth that few suburban classes matched.

In almost every case, "senioritis" was shunned and we had great classes up until the last week. In one especially awesome year, we started a new tradition. As the class lined up for their graduation processional, I jokingly asked about a current event issue. A debate broke out in the line and a new tradition was created. In the following years, my seniors took pride in a final "government in the news" lesson in the last minutes before they walked across the stage. 

Now, academic learning mostly stops with spring break. During the spring testing season, I bet, the new normal involves learning mostly destructive habits and the need to conform to outer-directed behaviors to please the test-driven system. But, as more parents complain, I bet schools will start to return to teaching students about what really matters in life. When they do, students will rise to the occasion.-JT(@drjohnthompson)    


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