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 firstname.lastname@example.org.