Dare to be Different? Not in Arkansas

University of Arkansas colleague Dr. Dennis Beck penned the following piece relating the unique experience of homeschooling in the accountability era through the story of his daughter’s experience with the third grade standardized test. 

I live in Arkansas, and we homeschool. My oldest child has never taken a standardized test before, and was now being required to take one.  We value education rather highly in our family, and talk about college and career quite a bit. We have great conversations about topics that she cares deeply about. We also talk about how her interests may someday combine to form a career – a series of things that she could pursue together and in the process earn an income. Well, when I first described the standardized test to her she was dumbfounded.  Why would anyone want to waste her time in such a manner?  Didn’t they know that even the format of the test (multiple choice) made it nearly impossible to gauge what she was learning?  Add to that the reality that there is no real way to compare each student’s individualized learning path with that of another, and she was thoroughly confused.

She was also more than a little anxious. So we bought her a book with a few sample problems and she learned how to color in bubbles on a test sheet.  I asked her if that made her feel smarter. “Not really” was her disinterested reply.  So I explored the possibility of her “opting out” of the test. I was told in a rather condescending way that my daughter was required to take the test, or that she would be counted as truant and referred to the courts. The result might be that we would be forced to place her in public school the next year (a bit of an overreaction?!?).

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So we decided to have her take the test.  We told her that it didn’t matter how she did on the test and that she was really the best person to assess her own learning because she knew her own strengths and weaknesses. We also told her that if she encountered a problem that she didn’t know or a word that she didn’t know the definition of, she should try her best or just skip the question and move on to the next one.

After the test, we talked about her experience.  This is a young lady who is thoroughly enthused and engaged by art, music, literature, math, science, history and other subjects when she is learning at home, but when placed in an artificial testing environment, she immediately disengaged. She told us about how the instructor wouldn’t answer any of her questions, that the questions were extremely easy, and how most of all, she didn’t learn a thing.  Later she even mentioned doodling on her paper when she finished early.  She was bored.

Since taking the test, she has asked me what will be done with the tests.  Arkansas’ official policy is that no one, including the state, sees the exam results except for the parents – to which I sarcastically wonder why she had to take an exam that I do not value and will not look at in the first place? My daughter also wanted to know whether the test makers will consider what she wrote at the end of the test, “I did not learn a single thing as a result of taking this test.  It was a complete waste of time. Please do not make me take it again.  I would like to be learning instead.” She has also wondered how any of what on the test would prepare her to succeed in college.

Just in case you were wondering, my daughter is in the third grade.

Now I’m the anxious one. I’m worried that my daughter will be steered off the path of authentic, meaningful learning and taught that learning is about being able to regurgitate information on an exam and to color neatly inside the bubbles on the test sheet. I’m worried that she will be trained by society that everything worthy of learning is black and white and answerable in 4 or 5 different choices.  I’m also concerned that she will be raised in a community where people don’t question what they are learning and don’t spend time reflecting on why and how they are learning something. Where people are effectively told to shut up and go along with what the state says because they know best.

I don’t want her to become another cog in the machine of “progress”, however you define it. And I recognize that the over-testing phenomenon that has hit our nation is only a symptom of a much larger problem.  Instead of embracing individualized instruction for all students, we choose to compare them to each other. Are comparisons useful enough to warrant their use, given the huge amount of data that show how destructive they are to students’ self-efficacy? No.

I want all of my children to grow up loving learning.  I want them to understand that education is not preparation for some job in the future; it is life itself (John Dewey). Thus it should be enjoyed just as life is enjoyed – one moment at a time, uniquely for each person. I want them to grow up knowing that “revolt is the right of the people” (John Locke) and not just willingly allow themselves to be squeezed into doing things the way their society tells them. I want them to know that “the person who has lived the most is not the one with the most years but the one with the richest experiences” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Thus they will spend their lives seeking out rich learning experiences, whether in formal or informal education.

Yet people like my daughter and I are being labeled as problems and threatened to conform or else suffer legal action. We are being asked – demanded – to align our educational approach to an approach that has no backing in educational research. Those who seek to do this, and to implement regular comparisons of student learning should be recognized as the backward, flat-earthers that they are, and treated as such. People learn at different paces, and have a huge variety of interests and strengths.  That is reality – not their artificial world of lock-step widgets that all advance at a particular time and in the exact same way.

Dennis Beck is an Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at the University of Arkansas. He enjoys teaching instructional design and how to thoughtfully integrate technology into instruction.  But he finds most of his enjoyment in spending time with his wife and children – learning and living the rich experiences life has to offer. Contact Dennis at debeck@uark.edu