Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Long Summer of Forgetting

I’m surprised that I haven’t yet seen a back to school rant by any of the education muckrakers about summer vacation being obsolete and how students forget everything over the summer. You know the type of people I’m talking about. I read a lot of what they write because if they completely get their way a large part of my job will suck, so I find it essential to keep up on what they’re saying. Of course the way things are now gives me plenty of fodder to complain about “kids these days.” [Secret message to the patriarchy: notice that I have only vaguely complained about the public education system — which it is very much in vogue to do — and not hidden behind my blogging identity to bitch about my students. Fnord.] [Secret message to everyone else: You do see that as subtle and oblique cross-blog humor, even if it’s not funny to anyone except me, right?]

I never hear anyone note that if the students forget everything over the summer, then maybe they didn’t really learn it in the first place.

And here is where we may hear mention of one of the most easily abused characters in the debate over schools: standardized tests. These tests have their uses. Unfortunately, they are often misused or have too much read into their results.

Yes, the test showed that the students knew this stuff back in the spring and that they don’t know it in the fall.

This brings us to the classic mistake of confusing the statement with its converse.

Statement: If you know the material, then you will do well on the test. For a well-written test this is true.

Converse: If you do well on the test, then you know the material. Not necessarily true.

Taking myself as an example, through a summer of cramming and careful use of test-taking strategies (and probably a large amount of luck) I was able to get a low-pass (but still passing!) on my complex analysis qual in grad school. I will not embarrass myself by enumerating the depths of my ignorance about complex analysis. Suffice it to say that I will never teach the undergrad version of that course.

I think that the education critics don’t realize that this is what is meant when people complain about “teaching to the test.” They seem to think that teaching to the test means using effective instructional strategies to get students to learn and understand only the topics covered by the test. No. Teaching to the test means using any means necessary to train students to answer questions just like the ones on previous versions of the test — understanding is optional. It’s not that hard to teach pattern matching: if the problem looks like this, then you do that. But that’s not the type of knowledge that sticks. And it’s no surprise that students forget that stuff over the summer.

This is how math is taught in a lot of schools. (Not just K-12, but often K-14, too.) Drives me crazy. And makes life difficult for everyone.

But poor innocent summer is forced to take the blame.