by Ted Wachtel
Measuring the marigolds.
Seems to me you’d stop and see
How beautiful they are.
“If you cannot count it, it does not count,” is the official school motto. Without measurement, schools would not be schools. I estimate that I spent the equivalent of between one and two full school years of my time in public schools and universities taking quizzes, examinations and standardized tests. I can think of no other situation in life in which I have been under such scrutiny. If you feel I exaggerate, then let us count the ways that schools measure students.
- Kindergarten readiness testing. This is how schools decide whether a child should begin learning or not.
- Intelligence tests. IQ tests tell schools how fast you can do certain kinds of cognitive tasks, but they fail to measure emotional intelligence and common sense.
- Objective tests. These count toward grades and include several varieties: multiple choice, true-false, matching and fill-in-the-blank. Many teachers prefer them because they are quick to grade. The students who prefer them can memorize, guess or cheat well.
- Essay tests. These also count for grades. Some teachers prefer them because they feel essays reveal the depth of a student’s understanding. The students who prefer them usually bullshit well.
- Open book tests. Regardless of the subject matter, they seem to measure how well someone can look something up in hurry. Having learned about book indexes in library class helps a lot.
- Homework. Systems for grading homework vary widely among teachers, but one fact is universal: if it doesn’t count toward grades, kids won’t do it.
- Term papers. Like essay tests, in that they are preferred by bullshitters. They are required in high school because they will be required in college. None of us have written one since.
- Creative effort. This is very difficult to assign a grade. My creative effort included highly original excuses for not doing my homework.
- Class participation. Also very difficult to assign a grade. Typically the emphasis is placed on how often you say something, rather than what you say.
- Final examinations. Usually objective tests because they can be scored quickly. The report card deadline leaves teachers with less time to grade final examinations than any other test given during the year, despite the fact that final examinations count more heavily toward grades than other tests.
- Personality tests. These are the kind of evaluations that are supposed to identify your personality traits from paper and pencil activities, verbal responses, and your reaction to inkblots.
- SATs and ACTs. The Super Biggies. Your scores on these college aptitude tests make the difference between going to Harvard or Meadowlark Junior College.
- Quizzes. Usually employed by teachers as a threat to make sure that you did your reading assignment. They come in two varieties: the announced quiz; and the infamous pop quiz, which comes without warning (unless you are in a class which meets after lunch, in which case the earlier classes may not only give you warning but also the correct answers).
- Standardized Tests. Imposed on public schools by the federal government, standardized tests have more consequence for educators than for students. School staff and administration are frequently judged, often unfairly, by school ranking in these tests.
In recent years, hundreds of thousands of school students have refused to take the standardized tests.
If you are not convinced of the foolishness of all this measurement, imagine the techniques of the schools applied to a child learning to talk. Instead of letting the natural process unfold as the child hears others speak and sorts out words and grammar through direct experience, the child would be tested for talking readiness, annually assessed for talking progress, divided into listening groups according to I.Q., evaluated with a quarterly grade and assigned verb forms to practice in the crib. Based on the schools’ success with teaching children to read, we could reasonably expect a dramatic increase in the number of stutterers and mutes.
Yet grades continue to be the focus of school activities. They must be, for without them, schools would lose their most important coercive tool.
Sadly, constant evaluation creates anxiety and inhibits interest. Children hate learning when they are scrutinized and corrected. A garden of growing flowers does not need to be counted, weighed and measured. It just needs a healthy environment. Unfortunately, with all their evaluation, educators often block the sunshine and step on a lot of marigolds.
(Adapted from a chapter in my book: Beyond the Schoolhouse, 1977, 2018)