Wednesday, December 9, 2015

English Education With (Less) Standardization

The instruction of reading and writing in America has progressed exponentially over the past several centuries. With technological advances, communication both within this field and within the world has changed drastically; and when communication changes, so does just about everything else! This led to the development of standardized testing. Although a plethora of standardized tests have the benefit of providing a general standard for education, English teachers should not be required to teach to specific state qualifications, as this results in a focus on semantics instead of actual education.

Most individuals believe that our children are the future, and we invest quite a bit in them. As such, the general public believes that education is important; that teaching people how to read is critical for society’s growth; that English classes in which critical thinking is taught are a benefit to the public school system; and that testing helps ensure that students are getting a quality education. No rational person (excluding angst-y high schoolers who dislike school in general….and I’m not sure I would consider the average high schooler to be “rational”) will fight you on any of those beliefs. However, here we have a statement that has, and will continue to, spark intense controversy:

The public school system should focus on state testing standards and teach only material that conforms to the approved “standards of learning”.

Rational? Socially acceptable? Depends on who you ask.

How Did It All Start?

If we go back to the time of the one-roomed schoolhouse, most children, especially those living in more rural areas, did not attend traditional school--and if they did, it certainly was not for the standard twelve years we have nowadays. Classes were structured around the knowledge that the teacher had. Curriculum was flexible and the general focus was on teaching necessary skills. In a one-roomed school building, teachers were required to educate children of several different age groups and skill levels, so testing and evaluations began as early as the 1600’s. English classes, as well as several other subjects, were focused on rote memorization. Penmanship was important, in part because it was easy to test. Teachers were less concerned with analysis than they were with grammar--in a society where many didn't know how to read or write, having these skills was a big deal. Around 1776, when revolution and independence were the focus, schools began to emphasize religion less and the nation more. The amount of literature in the curriculum increased drastically, in the hopes that this would make for an additionally educated, elect, and moral society. As education became more of a priority, the way courses such as Language Arts or English were taught changed significantly.

Since the development of the public school system as we know it today, analysts and teachers have been working for years to develop better curriculums. As it became more common for students to further their education by attending college, teachers worked hard to standardize educational programs so that their students would be prepared to attend the college of their choice. With such a program, teachers have less control over their individual classroom topics of instruction. In some ways, this is beneficial; students will get the same level of education regardless of the public school they attend. Yet while standardized tests were created with good intentions, this has led to a situation in which tests are the focus of the curriculum.

Why Doesn't It Work?

For classes such as mathematics or chemistry, standardized tests don’t seem to hurt learning too badly. It is fairly simple to break these subjects down into conceptual “chunks”, which teachers can teach to students efficiently and without losing the art of the subject. However, when this is done in English classes, it results in a generation of students who can diagram a sentence perfectly without ever understanding, or developing, a true love of literature. In a society where communication is crucial, why would we risk jeopardizing it?

Targeting a specific audience is necessary for all effective communication, so how can we teach English in a way that’s directed at students? Not only do teachers need to communicate the required information, they also must persuade the students to listen. Students who love to read and write will learn differently than students who could care less and are only taking the class because they are required to. Whether a teacher takes on a lecture-style approach or adopts the Socratic style, communication and persuasion will come from body language, enthusiasm, and tonality just as much as it comes from the words themselves. Instead of a teacher starting out a lecture with “okay class, today we’re going to go over the state standards of learning 4.7 and 4.8!” (a nearly exact quote from one of my high school English classes), why not let teachers actually teach? Won’t teachers be much more effective at their jobs if they can teach the “how” of analysis and reading and writing, rather than the “what” to memorize? Additionally, if teachers could cater to the educational needs of their students, this would create a much more beneficial student-teacher relationship, and as such, foster a better learning environment!

So What Can We Do?

In an essay discussing the effects the original standardized tests are having on the educational system today, Ellen H. Brinkley remarked that “it is easy to understand the promise that standardized testing and scales held to turn students’ reading and writing into numerical scores not tainted by human attitudes and impressions. The same impersonal efficiency that seemed to work on the factory assembly lines promised both higher productivity and quality control in English language arts evaluation as well. Few seemed, in print at least, to question the effects of sorting students on the basis of numerical labels. Few seemed to question whether the tests themselves could accurately and adequately evaluate the complexities of English language arts skills and processes”. Such impersonal efficiency is easy to do when it comes to grading, but do we really want to label our students and force them to think within such limits? We claim that frequent standardized tests prepare students for the next level of education, but do they really? Would it not be better to have every student be able to sit down and analyze a novel than it is to make sure that everyone has read “Romeo and Juliet” and memorized enough of their teachers analytical comments to do well on the test?

I propose that we go back to the basics. While it may not have a simple application, it’s a simple idea. Instead of requiring students to complete a minimum of four state standardized tests a year and thus requiring teachers to teach exactly what will be on said tests, students would write an annual essay that would be graded by a teacher at another school in the state. As opposed to rigorously specific standards of learning, the state would determine a few general concepts that should be the focus of each school year. For example, 9th grade could be focused on grammar, 10th grade could be focused on persuasive writing (rhetoric), 11th grade could be focused on rhetorical analysis, and 12th grade could be focused on synthesizing all of these skills. The yearly papers would be based on a generalized prompt and scored based on that grade levels focus. This will successfully indicate learning without sticking a bubble-sheet label on every student.

In the words of G. M. Trevelyan, “Education… has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading”. Though this is a legitimate problem, it can be improved with a few basic, and yet effective, changes in the educational system. These changes include lowering the amount of emphasis being put on standardized testing, focusing on teaching skills instead of testing memorization skills, and allowing teachers to create a classroom conducive to learning. It’s cheesy, I know—but let’s follow the counsel of good ol’ Nike and “Just Do It!”

Works Cited 
Brinkley, Ellen H. (1992) “Early English Language Arts Evaluation and the Evolution of “New-Type” Tests, Language Arts Journal of Michigan: Vol. 8: Issue 1, Article 6.

Image Credits
Kcard. SomeEcards. Digital image. SomeEcards. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <>.
Piro, Tony. Lil' Calamities and Testing. Digital image. Calamaties of Nature. N.p., 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

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