Saturday, April 25, 2015

Teach to the Test

I love tests.  I've always considered tests to be the Big Game of academics.  A challenge of memorizing things, guessing, figuring out.   I remember studying for tests in High School and College in courses I didn't really pay attention to, shooting for an A in 3 days or less.  This was really good practice for Consulting, where a potential client drops out of the sky and I have 3 days to become an expert on their business.  It's also good practice for certification exams that are prevalent in many fields, including Law, Medicine, and IT.

Recently, parents in my sons' program have been opting out of the new Illinois mandatory bi-annual standardize test, which was crammed in the annual academic schedule with 3 other multi-day tests.   My first reaction was good - my son needs a break from all the work he has to do.  Why would anyone complain about tests?

Then I started my recent research project on learning which has been discussed in my last 3 articles.   That got me thinking.   Tests are the worst possible thing you could do to a child's education (which I will explain below).  Especially in Illinois, the annual testing cycle is destroying education of thousands of children, which will give my 2 children a distinct competitive advantage in high school and college. 

It's time to take a closer look at tests.

If the test was a series of challenging content that exercises a child's learned cognitive skills, tests would become a valuable teaching tool.  But tests are designed to determine whether or not the child has "learned" a bunch of facts and formulas and can apply them.

In Illinois, teachers and schools are evaluated on the results of the test.   The rankings are published, and parents choose schools based on test scores. 

If the test requires a child to know how to diagram a sentence or the dates of the Revolutionary War, the teacher has to make sure that the child knows the process and the facts.   The Common Core standard has a long list of facts and processes.  Too much to fit in a single year.  Therefore the only option a teacher has is to present all of this information to the child for memorization and testing.  That's what teachers do.

Unfortunately, this skips the learning process and goes directly to the desired outcome.   In my At Home School program, we love the Revolutionary War, and follow interesting and complicated stories that spark our imaginations.  It never occurred to me to find out when it began and when it ended.  I hope some day my kids stumble across these dates in the process of some learning activity, but for now, it was sometime around 1776.  We know a lot about the Revolutionary War, but mainly we know how to learn stuff on our own and in depth.

In a learning program, kids maintain high interest levels following things that are interesting and challenging, and pick up the skills they need to be successful in college and life.  In our schools, children pick up a bunch of useless processes and facts and don't actually learn.  The learning process is skipped to make sure children are prepared for the test.

The worst subject of all is math.  The teacher presents a concept, shows some examples, and gives the children a worksheet where they regurgitate the calculation over and over until they memorized it. They know nothing of math, problem solving, exploration, or learning.  At some point between middle school and college, their lack of skills will upend their progress and likely terminate their study of math and science.

Think about that next time you have to do Test Prep for a cognitive abilities test.  You should prep "learning" and let the kid flounder on their own until they teach themselves the content.

Last night my 10 year old and I tried to solve this completely oddball problem that will never show up on a test:  What is the remainder when the number composed of the digits "2013" repeated 2013 times (this a number with 8,052 digits) is divided by 333,333.  We learned the following things:
1.  Big problems have lots of steps
2.  To solve a big problem, you probably have to solve a few smaller ones.
3.  That question requires rereading about 2013 times.
4.  The big number is divisible by 3, and the answer is 0671 repeated 2013 times.  This was a dead end at first but helped us later.
5.  The person who came up with this problem is insane.
6.  Guessing is a really great tool for solving math problems in some circumstances
7.  If you guess, you have to prove that you are correct
8.  When you do a big problem, you might need multiple math books handy for reference.
9.  And more.

I learned a lot too.  It took us 25 minutes just to come up with a few viable strategies to solve this problem.  I think my son got lost after step 7, but he learned so much I don't care.  He's got time to learn the rest.

In the UK, there are some special schools that give no tests in between 1st grade and senior year of high school, and then the kids have to take the college entrance exam.  With 12 straight years of learning, unencumbered by tests, the children do statistically way better than their peers in traditional test-focused schools.  Finland has a similar experience.

I think the lack of tests is the reason why home schoolers do better in college than in-school kids.  Again, it's because time is spent learning and not memorizing.

In Illinois, a big problem is when kids get to college they end up with B's or worse their freshman year.  These kids have a high school transcript packed with A's in AP courses, and some of them worked and studied at a college level for more than a year in these courses.  They bomb in college.  Why is that?  Because in college a student is expected to learn and these kids were never taught to learn.  Who has time to explore a subject with 4 AP courses in their schedule each semester?

I have talked to college professors about these kids (because I have to deal with them professionally and they need a lot of remedial problem solving skills).   It's pretty shocking to hear how the majority of these kids approach their course work.  "Just tell me what is on the test" is the prevailing attitude.  Of course this is the attitude, because that is all the kids learned for 12 years before college.

This summer's At Home Schooling program is going to focus on learning.  I have some damage to undo.


  1. Can you please suggest some books on logical reasoning for grades 2-3?

    1. Of course. MInd Benders, Logic Liftoff, Logic Countdown, and Logic Safari (I never used the last one so can't comment on) These books seem really hard, which is good, but are highly learnable. Logic countdown is highly verbal. It's like a condensed version of Building Thinking Skills.

  2. What are your thoughts on Montessouri schooling? I have recently been looking at our options for school (not many) and it seems to come down to our very nice suburban public school (I'm hoping with a lot of accommodations in the gifted program) a wildly inconvenient Montessouri school that is entered by lottery, or shelling out big bucks for a fancy pants gifted school and hoping they lean enough to pay their own way in college.

    1. Inconvenient is not good for a child. I'm not impressed with Montessouri schools. I think there secret is attracting parents who teach their kids at home anyway. As for private school, I could make more money if I worked longer hours, but instead I work less and spend more time with my kids making sure the kids from a private school don't have an advantage over my son. They won't, because they see much more of their father.