We can learn a lot about, and from, a tree.
We can learn a lot about, and from, our children's understanding of a tree.
Many high school sophomores think fire is alive, and that trees are not. I can spend a week letting them explore fire (staring at a candle, perhaps), and if I get permission slips, spend a day or two outside on the town green, studying a tree.
I do not have that kind of time, of course, not if I hope to cover the curriculum before the state test May 18 (and a stand-alone field test May 19, the product of the NJPAA, more on that in a moment).
The assumption is that children already know that a tree is alive, and that fire is not. I have no doubt they have been asked questions about that before in earlier grades:
Which of the following is NOT alive?A. A rabbit
B. A tree
C. A horse
D. A rock
Figure well over 80% of 7th graders can get that question right--no, I don't have the numbers, but maybe some middle school teacher would be kind enough to test the question. (The answer is, of course, D.)
Here's the crux: "knowing" that answer does not mean the child truly knows what "alive" means.
Here's another question I'd like seen on exam:
Which of the following is more alive than the others?A. A tree
B. A slug
C. a dog
D. None of the above
It's a "bad" question--it involves a "none of the above" and a little bit of trickery, but it works for Sunday morning before coffee.
The answer, less obvious now, is D. Which would most 7th graders pick (without the usual week or two of prompting preceding the standardized (cough, cough) test?
Here's a better question:
The adults around you want you to "prove" you know what the word "alive" means in its scientific sense. Compare and contrast a rock, a slug, a tree and a dog in terms of whether each is living or not. Be sure to include at least 6 characteristics of life in your answer.
Now some of my sophomores have a tiny shot at getting that right the week we cover the definition of life. I'm betting that most members of Congress would turn it over to their aides, and that even their Ivy League young ambitious aides would have problems answering the question without running to Google.
Still, it's a better question than the previous one if you want to test whether a child grasps the word "alive."
Even if I prettied up the question, ran it through a couple of trial sessions, validated it, and stamped it with the official approval of the American Board of All Things Testable, the state would be hard pressed to use it.
Someone needs to grade it. Grading costs money. People have a lot more fun sitting in lucrative sessions designing tests than in the far less lucrative business of sitting in a cubicle grading essays based on a rubric.*
So how does this happen? How do we end up testing children about life when we design a curriculum that does not allow them to grasp a tree?
Last April, the state came out with a report headed by the governor, the CEO of Prudential, and the President of Montclair State University. No need to drag their names into the foray, it's their positions that matter.
In a fancy brochure with lots of colors (it hogs over 3 MB of my hard drive), our education leaders speak:
Extensive research conducted by Achieve, Inc. and others has revealed that students need the same knowledge and skills—no matter what their plans are after graduation. Students, whether they choose to pursue an apprenticeship, two-year college, four-year college, or entry-level employment will need to be prepared to the same standard.NJ STEPS RE-DESIGNING EDUCATION IN NEW JERSEY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
A Policy Report of the New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee
April 25, 2008
You'd think that with that triumvirate of brainpower, someone would have balked at that sentence. (You'd think maybe they'd balk at the indefinite article before "Policy Report", too, but maybe it endears them with a false sense of modesty.)
So I believe they mean it. And that scares me.
If the goals are defined by the tests, and if the former CEO of Prudential doesn't require his charges to know a tree from "the Rock," well, time for me to take my John Dewey and Thomas Jefferson portraits off the wall.
Anyone have a poster of Rex Tillerson I could have cheap?
*Last year New Jersey biology teachers got messages from the New Jersey Performance Assessment Alliance looking for scorers--the money went up and the prerequisite qualifications went down as it became clear that teachers were less than thrilled with the process. Someday the test prompt “Tweaking the Genes” will be available for all to view--give me a heads up if it's available now--and the reasons for our reluctance will be obvious.