Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TEKS and TAAS: The Standardized Strangulation of Imagination

For several years before my first child was born, I worked as a copy editor for a textbook company. A small place, we took on weighty loads of a variety of textbooks from every major publisher you could think of. Although we specialized in reading, spelling, and phonics for younger grades, I worked on high school science and literature textbooks, and even wrote a 6th-grade math/social science textbook (which you can read to your horror and my shame on Google Books—there are reasons I wasn’t asked to do one again).

Standardized teaching and testing was an intimate part of my life as a copy editor. Every textbook we worked on, from every major company, followed what are known as TEKS and TAAS, the learning and testing guidelines laid down by the state of Texas. (For those conspiracy theorists who always wondered whether the entire national curriculum is really run by the state of Texas, the answer is, essentially, yes. Texas buys its textbooks for the entire state, whereas most states allow their districts to choose and purchase individually. Texas wields enormous power over how our children are educated because it is simply the most important slice of the market for textbook publishers. So yes, the fact that the Texas board is waging war on science should worry you.)

These guidelines are massive, thousands of little instructions and expectations, spanning all grade levels, covering requirements from the specifics of trigonometry in high school, down to the movement of large and small muscle groups in kindergarten. Let your imagination run wild as to how specific the requirements of your child’s education can get, and you can’t go far wrong.

I used to take all the stupid requirements and niggly publishing quirks in stride, with a sense of humor, but when you see on a daily basis the reality of what we’re forcing on our children for several hours a day, the humor starts to erode.

It wasn’t the New York State Regency exam that, in a multiple-choice question regarding the reasons behind most recent invasion of Iraq, failed to give as an answer/option anything close to the truth (that is, one that questioned the US government’s motives behind the invasion). And it wasn’t the failure of a high school history textbook’s glowing mini-bio of Henry Kissinger to note that he avoids traveling to Europe because he’s wanted for questioning on war crimes. It wasn’t even the exasperating project of writing that math textbook, during which I had to count the number of syllables in each sentence to make sure my writing was “age appropriate.” (Evidently the number of syllables per sentence in a paragraph is more important to your child’s education than information. Heaven forbid the lesson actually be interesting.)

What broke my heart, finally, was not the endless checking and cross-checking to see which sub-requirement a specific math problem or activity might cover in the TEKS, but the cross-invasion of standardized testing into reading lessons for kindergarteners.

As most of us know now, we teach to the test rather than teach to help kids learn, and I saw no more striking or sobering example than lessons for 5-year-olds that focused on questions such as: “Good readers look for main ideas when they read,” or “As you read, identify the main and supporting characters in the story,” and so on with plot and climax and all the elements you expect to be quizzed on when you take the Iowa Basics or similar for the first time. These were tiny little books about, you know, mice and clocks. But the children weren’t allowed to focus on the funny story, the personalities; they weren’t allowed to let themselves go and sink into the weird imagination-river that makes reading, on its own, so powerful.

I can’t think of a better way to kill a child’s budding curiosity about reading and books. And once you strangle a desire to read, imagination has little chance at all.

Standardized tests used to be something we took every few years, an anomaly in our education, something by the wayside. Now there are 2nd-graders riddled with nervous anxiety because their “education” is constructed around frequent quizzes and tests, to prepare them to do well in major standardized tests in the 3rd grade.

I can remember the first time I took the Iowa Basics, one of the country’s most long-standing standardized tests. It was in the 6th grade. Despite being one of the smarter kids in the class, the Reading Comprehension section took me longer than it should have because I got caught up and interested in the content, and had to go back to look for main ideas, supporting ideas, and so on. In other words, reading for me, as it would be for any child given the chance, was a completely separate activity from the comprehension skill the test was looking for.

Years later, editing those kindergarten textbooks, I felt ill. I come from an intellectual family of complete book addicts, yet the lure of reading would not have stood a chance if someone had stood in front of me day after day, telling me what “good readers do” and refusing to let me enjoy the story. But I might have gotten into the 99th percentile on the Iowa Basics rather than the 98th.

Over the last few years I’ve read and heard the complaints of many college professors that the students coming in lack not only basic knowledge, but the ability to think at all. These students, they moan, are always wanting to know “what the teacher is looking for” in a paper. In other words, they’re so used to being taught to the test, that it comes naturally to them to write to the teacher.

The younger we push standardized testing, the further back we seek to squelch true curiosity and the fierce love of learning that most children are born with, the less likely it is that the future’s college students will have any concept of what it means to enjoy learning, much less how to think for themselves.

But personally, I’m more concerned about those kindergarteners, who will never care about the mouse, the clock, and the cheese, or that it’s a funny story, because they need to remember for the Thursday quiz what the main idea was. And the ridiculous thing is, I couldn’t tell them either. It’s a story. It’s fun. I’m sure that future lessons will include books with far less scope for imagination, and far more emphasis on plot and characterization.

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