Standard tests don't promote real education

We've just finished testing week in Alaska and for our children, that means three days of filling in bubbles on multiple-choice tests. Is it answer A or C? Is B the right answer or is it D?

Although the law requires these exams, it's time to re-examine our addiction to them. Do they truly evaluate what children can do and do they measure everything our children ought to know? The answer to both is no.

As the father of a high school freshman, I want all Alaska schools to provide a world-class education. And as a high school teacher, I want to figure out how to deliver that to all of our children. However, to accomplish these goals, Alaska needs to think differently about education.

The Legislature is currently debating education funding. Gov. Sean Parnell hasn't supported increases because test scores haven't shot up. Inflation is eroding the ability of school districts to keep pace but politicians turn a blind eye.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to the International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York. With education ministers from 23 countries along with representatives of teachers unions, the summit might have been expected to be disconnected from actual learning. However, I found it to be surprisingly candid and clear.

Other countries think differently about education. In the U.S., we give more standardized tests than any other major industrialized country and we rely more than anyone else on simple multiple-choice questions.

Other countries approach testing differently and score higher. In Finland, all assessment is performance-based and created locally. Teachers create rigorous investigations and projects that measure whether students can weigh, balance and evaluate information, developing their students' critical thinking skills while gaining valuable information to improve their instruction. Yet, in spite of not having been drilled on annual, simplistic multiple-choice tests like our students, Finnish students surpass ours on international assessments.

In schools, we must put together a curriculum that allows students to acquire thinking skills to create and innovate. With those skills, they can then generate new knowledge. Australia and New Zealand are leaders in curriculum design. They organize the learning process so students acquire the basics in a logical order that supports inquiry. And, most important, their complex tests then measure that.

In Australia, they call these "rich tasks," where students apply what they learn to real world situations. Students may design a drug to fight a new virus and design an experiment to test it. You can't measure any of those important skills in a multiple-choice question.

As an English teacher, I've often wondered why students aren't asked to write more on these exams. Don't we value writing? The answer, unfortunately, is that measuring student writing is a lot harder -- and more expensive -- than filling in a bubble. Retired state school board member Susan Stitham used to joke that at least we could print four essays on the test and have students bubble in the one that sounds most like their own writing.

In the 21st century, there is more information than anyone can memorize. Facts are everywhere, and by some measures, the amount of knowledge in the world doubles every three years. So the old model of education where a teacher stands at the front of the class and talks, while students take notes, just doesn't cut it.

We must teach students to analyze, criticize, communicate, evaluate the validity of information and work in teams. But most important, our children need to be able to fully engage in learning. Standardized multiple-choice tests just don't measure that.

In keeping with the testing theme, I'll end with this simple question: What is the best way to improve education in Alaska? (A) Cut education funding because the weak standardized tests have shown no improvement; (B) increase the number of standardized tests that students take; (C) force teachers to continue to use "teach to the test" methods; or (D) insist that schools focus on meaningful learning and an assessment system that can measure it.

I hope all Alaskans bubble in the right answer.

Tim Parker teaches at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks and is a member of the board of the National Education Association-Alaska.