Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 10, 2013

MARK HEINIG: Forty years of reading and math testing

Is it valuable, worthless or in between?


Kokomo Tribune

---- — On June 30, the Kokomo Tribune published an Asso-ciated Press report claiming that today’s high school seniors do no better at reading and mathema-tics than their predecessors did 40 years ago. When I read this, my immediate question was, “How can we know that?”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress consists of statistical data gleaned from various sources, primarily from tests administered to representative samples of public school students in grades 4, 8 and 12. (Apparently our offspring in grades 4 and 8 did better than in grade 12.) There is also a long-term trend assessment that includes data from both public and non-public schools.

I applaud any objective measure of students’ progress yielding data that help us to better identify and meet their learning needs. Although current and recent NAEP test results can provide useful information, comparing today’s kids with those in the early 1970s can only add further confusion to an issue that is bewildering enough already.

I wish that were not true, but the teaching-learning environment and the curriculum have changed drastically since 1970. That was the year when I began teaching high school. My wife and I also became parents then. It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that everything was different. Think about it!

We lived in another world — a world of black and white television, telephones that only allowed you to make and answer calls, and adding machines instead of pocket calculators.

If you had a computer at home, it was probably an Apple I, first offered for sale to the public in 1976. If your child was lucky enough to use one at school, it was in a computer lab. My school’s lab had 30 of them for nearly 700 students. Now, many schools provide one for each student. Today, many families have several. All of our grandchildren have their own. (Our youngest is 6 years old.) The original price was a little over $650. (If you still happen to own one, don’t put it in your next garage sale! One sold at auction for $671,000 in 2012.)

As teachers and parents, we tried to prepare our children to live in this rapidly changing and very different world. A liberal arts education was relevant in the 1970s. Many college students graduated with liberal arts degrees and found good jobs. The concept of the Renaissance scholar, a well-rounded person able to discuss nearly any subject, made sense. It still does, if we disregard the unpleasant facts that the Renaissance ended a long time ago, and that the liberal arts don’t lead to good jobs nearly as often as they once did. They grow more obsolete every year.

Some ingredients of a liberal arts education are still useful, and we should continue to value them. I’m thinking of the basic skills that we need to learn more advanced things. We keep discovering new information, and nobody can learn it all. We must select a small part of an increasingly specialized body of knowledge. If what we learn keeps changing, how can tests used 40 years ago measure how much we learn now? They can’t.

The NAEP maintains that the reading and math tests are virtually the same as in the 1970s. Even so, the students tested now differ vastly from their predecessors 40 years ago. The same tests may yield comparable data, but that doesn’t guarantee that the data are as useful now. As a beginning teacher, I worked for a principal who thought that well-designed objective tests could measure students’ progress as effectively as subjective tests —those demanding essay or short written answers. I didn’t believe that then, and I don’t believe it now.

We need both kinds of testing. For some subjects, we also need performance tests. An outstanding building-trades teacher once told me that written test grades are useless unless the students taking the test can build a house that doesn’t collapse! He insisted that we must grade his students by evaluating their finished product. Isn’t that the way a free market economy is supposed to work? When my wife and I decided to build a new home, we didn’t choose a builder by asking to see his school report card. We asked to see some houses that he had actually built.

I am certain that the NAEP’s raw data are accurate, but I do wonder if the NAEP is using them properly. Maybe it should also assess how well the test results are applied.

Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana principal and teacher. Contact him at markjr1708@gmail.com.