The Rage to Test
Last week, New York magazine published an article about the major reform of Bronx Science High School, one of the top-ranked public high schools in New York City and in the entire country. The reform began in 2001, when Valerie Reidy was hired as the new principal. A longtime Bronx Science biology teacher, Reidy was under the impression that her school was “‘perfect’” and was initially reluctant to change anything about it. But after the high school superintendent “encouraged [her] to think bigger,” Reidy dug into records and concluded that the school’s students, though undeniably smart and accomplished, were not scoring as well on standardized tests, getting accepted into as selective colleges, and winning as many competitions as their counterparts at Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, the city’s two other elite public high schools. Something, she decided, had to change, or else Bronx Science would eventually fall too far behind the others.
Reidy’s solution was to change the way students were taught. Rather than giving a lecture, a teacher would conduct class in a Socratic-style question mode, which was how Reidy had taught biology. But forcing teachers to change their methods created tension, especially when teachers that had always received high marks were suddenly being marked as “unsatisfactory.” Teachers and students complained, with some staging public protests against the administration, and multiple departments faced a mass exodus of teachers, who either were pressured to quit, were fired, or resigned on their own. As a result, by 2010, nearly 25 percent of the teachers at Bronx Science had less than three years of experience.
The article presents a classic case of large-scale change meets its obvious, natural counterpunch: resistance. An authority implements a new idea, the entrenched class takes umbrage, a struggle ensues, and, in the end, one side wins. But in these situations, the thing about the winner is that its victory is always a matter of subjectivity. Did the authority’s ability to maintain power do anything than demonstrate its thirst for power? Did the entrenched class’s maintenance of the status quo come at the expense of progress? Although all sides agree that the end result must be progress, the reason for the struggle is that the sides can never agree on what actually constitutes progress.
It was with this idea in mind that, as I read this article, I could not stop asking myself one central question: what is the purpose of high school? Each avenue I have explored leads me to conclude that Reidy’s efforts are misguided. I don’t necessarily think that this is her fault—the article suggests that she’s a product of the Bloomberg-era public school crackdown—nor do I pretend to understand a fraction of what she and her supporters know about education reform. Mainly, I just find what she’s doing disheartening.
Education reform is such a complicated topic, and so the easiest way for me to conceive the issue is from the top down. The overarching goal of Western civilization is to progress in a legal, moral, and ethical way—for people to honestly create business, improve infrastructure, further science, redefine technology, and mold culture—so that we can have a sound reason to enjoy our lives and leave our children in a better place. For this to occur, people must understand how their society works so that they can develop practical ways of progressing it. Since both people and society are nuanced—since no two people are any more similar than their fingerprints, since a formula for success in the telecommunications industry might not be applicable to the entertainment industry—people must be able to think critically. The way people think critically is by consuming a lot of information, studying history, theorizing in the abstract, generating concrete ideas, turning the ideas into concepts, and applying those concepts to society. Thus the final element of progress, the application of critically-thought concepts to the real world, stems from education.
In the U.S., we’ve built a system of education on the basis of measurement. One’s ability to think critically, we believe, can be determined by a written test. The people that score the best on standardized tests (and my do we love our standardized tests) are at a crucial advantage: they receive the best educational opportunities. But do these tests measure one’s ability to mend a service to a client’s need? Of course not. How could they? What does sitting in a room and answering questions about math formulas and dull selected passages have to do with solving such real-world problems, especially when the questions are the same ones that everyone single person in the country is answering?
It would be rather socialist to suggest that we identify, at a very young age, which people will become computer programmers, dentists, tax attorneys, actuarial scientists, and elementary school educators and begin training them as early as possible; that would remove the nuance from life just as much as standardized testing does. (At the same time, you could argue that standardized tests, the bulk of which are administered before one turns 18 and which effectively do classify people by intelligence, are already performing this function.) But reducing education to a series of set-piece question-and-answer exams diverts energy away from any sort of learning environment that could mimic the skills necessary to push society forward.
Where Reidy, the Bronx Science principal, seems most misguided is in her misinterpretation of her student constituency. Bronx Science students, by virtue of their high scores on (ironically enough) a citywide exam, represent some of the sharpest young minds in New York City. These students have already been classified as the one most likely to possess the innate intelligence that will allow them to score extremely well on college entrance exams. Gearing their secondary education toward fine-tuning these testing skills in lieu of engaging their fertile minds with their teachers, who at Bronx Science seem largely to have been some of the best in the field, seems like a massive waste of opportunity.
If the students’ standardized test scores slip a tiny notch below their counterparts’ at other schools, is it logical to overhaul the entire system of measurement to keep pace? After all, not every school can finish number-one in the rankings. But more importantly, do those extra notches represent any tangible measurement of intelligence or predict one’s future ability to help society progress? Or are they merely standardized benchmarks created by a diffident education system hoping to stave off a massive overhaul of its own?
I’m not opposed to the rabid hunt to get rid of bad teachers that have clearly entered the profession for a steady income and not because they’re passionate about (or even interested in) educating the youth. And at a certain point, typically when they’ve either attained or been denied tenure, even the best teachers, including the ones at Bronx Science, an alumni has told me, “don’t care anymore.” Regardless of one’s industry, once the incentives of pay and job security become non-factors, it takes a special type of moral character to invest as much energy to work as he or she did when pursuing the ultimate career goal of continued vertical movement. The smartest solution, it seems, is to assess which category a teacher fall into when he or she is beginning in the field and then put up with the fact that a few twilight slacker years, where the teacher falls into the terrible lecture-only style of teaching, from a few teachers won’t negate thirty-plus years of excellent service.
I am also not opposed to testing. Testing is good. Testing makes students accountable, teaches them responsibility, and encourages critical thinking. Testing is not the problem, and it never will be. Instead, the problem is that we’ve recalibrated the idea of a test in accordance with our system. Quality teachers know that everything they do, from assigning a take-home thesis essay to grading that essay in relation to the student’s personal strengths and weaknesses to (oh dear God) giving the occasional lecture (because sometimes teachers reach that point in the class where they need to explain a convoluted term to an engaged but befuddled teenager), is a test that measures a student’s critical thinking skills. A student sitting down at a desk with a gray booklet, bubbling in a Scantron, and writing a short “essay” should not be thought of as the only form of testing, in the same way that the Socratic Method, which can easily veer from process illuminator into scripted formula, should not be thought of as the only style of teaching. The human mind—and multiple human minds working together in a classroom—is nuanced. Why are some of the smartest high school kids in New York City being treated as if they’re all the same?
Reidy’s efforts have had predictable results, with one caveat: though test scores at Bronx Science have risen, the school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking has fallen nearly thirty places since 2007. But does that even matter? This is a country where the eccentric programming genius Sean Parker is paying kids not to go to college, where the joke about law school is you’ll learn everything once you get a job (if you get a job), where the 18-year-old celebrates not that she’ll be able to get educated at Harvard but that she was accepted to Harvard. The real problem isn’t that our high school students are stupid. It’s that no one’s made them care about being smart.