I saw the title of a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times: “The Problem Isn’t the SAT. It’s K-12 Schools That Fail to Prepare Students.”
My first inclination was to simply ignore this letter, dismissing it as the opinion of an idiot. However, I overcame my initial impulse and read what the author had to say. Blah, blah, blah - academic competition requires test scores - more blah, blah - sorting is a good thing. The usual stuff. And, I wasn’t totally surprised to see that the writer is a professor at a prominent California university.
Not an idiot. Simply misinformed.
Now, I am not blindly defending our system of K-12 public education. It is definitely not perfect. I am an active critic. There are discrepancies of practice that contribute to a climate of unfortunate inequity in many classrooms in countless communities. That said, I will always champion public education as a source of enormous equalizing potential in preparing children for successful futures by affording each child (ideally) opportunities to explore the skills and habits of mind that they will need to rely on.
(Personal disclosure: I get grumpy when I hear the assertion that the previous level obviously didn't do an adequate job in preparing their students while they had them. Otherwise, they would be showing better current performance. Placing blame is a convenient method to minimize one’s obligation to the challenges they confront. Should it surprise anyone that my hackles go up with the suggestion that “K-12 schools fail to prepare students?”)
So, let's ask, what are we preparing students for?
The SAT (and its “brother from another mother,” the ACT) might be an appropriate end-game instructional target if the outcomes we desire were reflected in these assessments. Sadly, a successful execution of these tests relies on the demonstration of three, rather basic, primary skills. First, students must be able to memorize vast amounts of information in the form of facts and data points that frequently lack context. Second, students must have the capacity to recall the facts they have stored in their memory banks in response to multiple choice and similar low level questions. Finally, students must be able to possess mastery in regurgitating this information within the constraints of limited time.
Did I just describe the skills and tools 21st century learners need and should expect to be the outcome of their instructional experience? Memorization and recall, against a clock? I hope not. These are 20th century expectations. I’ll even concede that they may have been appropriate for that time in history to enable students to score well on these 20th century standardized “indicators of learning.” But, let’s remember that we turned the page to a new millennium twenty years ago. More importantly, the world has changed and the pressures and expectations placed on current students barely resembles what was previously expected.
Memorization and recall are no longer sufficient, and should not even be considered as acceptable indicators of learning and understanding. The world today does not expect, or even desire, that the graduates of our educational system will successfully demonstrate low level cognitive skills in isolation, with the most pressing mandate being to “get it done on time.” Today’s learners are expected to be able to think - critically. They must apply their creativity, experience and ingenuity toward identifying complex problems and finding equally complex solutions. Quality now over shadows quantity. Kids are expected to be able to work effectively in collaboration with others, not in isolation. They must be able to negotiate, and to engage in purposed flexibility, as contributing members of teams.
Even a perfect 1600 SAT score does not assure mastery in these critical areas.
So, maybe the op ed writer is correct. Maybe our K-12 schools are not preparing students for impressive SAT scores.
If that is true, let’s have a loud “hallelujah!”
If this is the case, I’m encouraged.
Maybe we have finally begun to turn this huge, unwieldy vessel and are charting a more appropriate course for our kids.
Maybe students are beginning to experience The Education Kids Deserve.
If our post-secondary colleagues still contend that they need some reliable way to sort and compare students who aspire to attend their institutions, I’d suggest they contribute to the discovery of a new pathway. It’s time they descend their ivory towers and join the conversation; a discussion that asks: “What methods might we employ that will effectively allow students to demonstrate what they know, and that are accurate representations of their present, and future, gifts and abilities?" Further, "How can we replace our flawed system of meritocracy with something that better serves the needs and interests of today's learners and, at the same time, a PreK-16+ educational system?” (See my June 24, 2019 post, “Flawed Meritocracy.”)
The answer is not imbedded in more standardized testing. Effective answers will not be found by perpetuating outdated tools toward the advancement of new agendas.
That would be simply, misinformed.