A lesson poorly learned

Over the past few weeks students in the American Falls School District have been preparing for the ISAT tests and that preparation has left me with a very bad taste for our education system.

As a child I remember the Iowa Basic Skills Test. It was a standardized test much like the ISAT. As students we were told the test was used to measure how much we had learned since the last time we were tested.

There was no run-up, no last minute push to reach a specific page in the textbook. It was usually a surprise. We would come to school as usual and our teachers would explain we would be doing something a little bit different as they handed out Scantron sheets, test booklets and the universally famous No. 2 pencil.

A few weeks after the Iowa Basic Skills Tests were administered a result sheet would be sent home so our parents could see a breakdown of our progress. That was the end of the story; work harder on the low areas.

I learned a great deal from the Iowa Basic Skills Test. I learned that math was a weak area for me. I learned that I am very strong in the language areas. I learned that tests were not scary.

In our house we have two students that took the ISAT this year, and what a marked difference. Over the past few weeks our fifth grader has cried, pouted, screamed, yelled and talked about faking illness to avoid the test.

In that same time our third grader has viewed the ISAT as an excuse to get what he wants. He can’t do the dishes because he has extra ISAT homework. He can’t go to bed on time because he has to do extra ISAT homework. Mind you he cannot produce the work sheets when told to do his homework.

Kids will be kids, as the saying goes, but I believe there is an underlying problem that goes beyond kids trying to weasel their way out of a chore or bedtime.

In order to reach a specific spot in the text books prior to the ISAT our fifth grader has been struggling to accomplish two lessons a day. Two lessons that are the most non-sequitur lessons ever assembled. One day a page of adding fractions followed by a page of geometry, the next day it was long division and word problems, followed up the next day by a work sheet that asked her to fill in a multiplication chart.

As I wrote at the beginning of this column I am not strong in math, but I have been out of high school for 15 years, I have worked a variety of jobs, so I feel I have a decent grasp on what types of math an adult encounters on a regular basis. I also know that our fifth grader learns mathematical concepts much in the same way I do. I regularly have to perform basic math functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division). I routinely use fractions and have to convert, reduce, add and subtract fractions. I use geometry at least twice a day.

I did not learn these concepts by skipping around. It was repeated use that planted these necessary skills in my brain.

The new trend nationally in education conversations is to refer to students as clients or customers. I believe this view cheapens the educational experience, but okay let’s look at it that way for a moment.

If you were to buy a fridge that kept your food cold and your frozen items frozen, but it made so much noise it kept your whole family awake at night, would you keep it? What would you have to say to a customer service representative if they told you there was nothing that could be done to remedy the problem because the appliance was technically doing what it was designed to do?

Technically speaking our fifth grader is being taught the things she needs to know, but I was struck by how ineffective the customer service she is receiving truly is when I was helping her with a math problem that involved the fraction one fourth.

In explaining to her what the problem was asking her to solve I interchanged the terms one fourth and one quarter. This was the second of two lessons she had to have finished by the next day so we were both a little tired, but she was completely lost by my use of one quarter.

I tried to explain what one fourth, one quarter and 25 cents have in common, without success. This was very concerning to me because she is strongly concentrated on money, the idea that 25 cents was a quarter of a dollar and one fourth of a dollar all at the same time eluded her.

I tried explaining it terms of a football game. One quarter was one of four parts of the whole game; still no luck.

I let the conversation go because at this point we were both frustrated. Instead I watched as she struggled to fill in another multiplication chart without a calculator (a task that took almost an hour).

I began thinking that my weakness in math was the problem I have with explaining mathematical concepts, maybe I am just not very good at teaching math.

A few days later our fifth grader had a friend over to the house and I asked her friend “What do one fourth, one quarter and 25 cents have in common?”

This little girl answered simply “how am I supposed to know?”

So I explained my frustration to a friend who has a son in the fifth grade. At first my friend agreed with my assessment of my teaching abilities. She called her son over and asked him if he had a quarter how much money would he have?

His answer was stunning.

“That is easy. I would have 20 cents,” he answered proudly.

To say my friend was taken aback is a bit of an understatement.

I don’t think the problem necessarily lies with their specific teacher. I think it comes from this frantic need to meet a deadline. As it has been explained to me, math is about order, about having a consistent system for solving a problem. The need to reach a certain place in the book should not overtake the defining principle of the subject, but that is what teachers are forced to do to meet the benchmark of a test.

Even our third grader despite his scheming to get out of chores, is genuinely stressed out because of the ISAT. What have these children really learned from this process? That tests are stress inducing. Knowledge retention is only needed for a couple of weeks. Time at home is a stressful experience that should be avoided.

None of which are lessons I want my children to learn.

The run up to the ISAT has been filled with confusion, frustration and a lot of lost sleep. This was all capped off by the announcement that our fifth grader now has to prepare for a Common Core test.

Let the tears continue to flow.

1 comment for “A lesson poorly learned

  1. Jon
    May 3, 2013 at 11:35 am

    I could go on and on about how the modern standardized testing has screwed our education system over. But I’ll simply state that we need to stop focusing on the results of the tests as indicators of where to place our tax dollars in the current process. The better the tests, the better the funding isn’t working. And since the focus is to try and have the students get high marks on the tests now, the core concepts are getting missed out. Try taking a moment with a calculator and giving a visual demonstration of how 1/4 on a calculator equals .25. We all don’t learn the same way, they say there are 7 different ways people learn. If the teachers have to focus on the results of a test and are unable to take the time to show different ways something is done, then the kids miss out.

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