It’s that time again, time to cram and review for the SAT Subject Tests. I teach at a college prep school. Many of the more selective colleges and several state universities require students to submit subject test scores as a part of the college application. Therefore, we have to have our students ready for these content focused tests.
While running a review session two weeks ago, the students took and then we went over a practice test. One of the practice test questions (from the leading test prep book) was about President Garfield. Only one of our bright, eager students even knew we had a President Garfield. And what this student knew was that he was one of four Presidents assassinated. In making choices about what to cover and what to leave out, my colleagues and I chose to skip past Garfield, spending time in Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and then jumping to American Imperialism in the late nineteenth century.
I have a Ph.D. in History from University of Pennsylvania. I have been teaching US History since 1997! What I know about Garfield is brief: self-made man from Ohio, compromise candidate for the Republican Party in 1880, worked hard to reform the Federal Civil Service. His successor President Arthur actually signed into law legislation establishing the Civil Service as a merit based system (as opposed to a spoils system). To learn more specifics about Garfield, I can open a browser and do a Bing or Google or Wikipedia search.
Is this what colleges really want students to know?
I don’t want to get into an argument about whether Garfield was a part of US History, or whether the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was a a game changing piece of legislation. The question I want to ask is this: What is it we want our students to learn from their US History survey courses?
Every state requires high school students to take a US History survey course. Given the shortness of the school year and the increasing body of US History (every year we add another year of events, people and topics) we have to make choices. Not so for the makers of the SAT Subject Test. Every event, every President, every person of note is of equal importance and equally likely to show up on the examination. To prepare for any eventuality means moving through the survey textbook at a measured pace, constantly committing facts to memory, reviewing them frequently, and finishing the year with a head full of facts, a knowledge base a mile wide (or at least 300 years long) and a half inch thick. We can hope some of it will stick to the teen brain past the test date.
By using this test in their admissions process, colleges are saying: this is what we want our incoming students to have — heads full of facts.
But what can these students do with these facts? If I were a college admissions director I would want an assessment that sought to tease out a young person’s sense of what it means to be an engaged citizen. As a baseline, this sort of assessment might begin with geography. Where are the Appalachian Mountains and what do they have to do with the Proclamation of 1763? Where is the Grand Coulee Dam and what does it have to do with the Second New Deal? Where is the Rio Grande and what was its importance to the Mexican American War?
Along with geography, I would want to examine what students know about the evolution of the concepts of liberty and equality from the time of the Puritans and Cavaliers through to the present. How informed are they of the ways in which the Constitution has been interpreted and re-interpreted? Then I would want to see how much they know of all those times when citizens came together to effect change — all the 19th and 20th century citizen-led reform movements, including those of Reconstruction and the Progressive Era, to improve the lives of others or reform the government. For instance, I would want students to compare the Bonus Army with the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
If I were representing these respected higher education institutions, I would want such an assessment to measure effective writing and thinking. Then, I would want to know what potential students could actually do with all of this knowledge. Are they active, critical-thinking citizens or passive receivers of information?
That is what I would want to know. How about you?
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Bravo!!!! You are talking about critical thinking, which tests these days lack. My fear is that with all of the test preparation and required tests, students will know a lot of facts, but not be able to engage in critical thinking. When I first started teaching, critical thinking was so much a part of every math program in the elementary schools. Students had to synthesize and apply the concepts and the facts. Different strategies were revered. Now, the math programs that are being chosen is paper and pencil and workbooks. Teachers are teaching one way to solve the problems. The “leveled” offers are minimal to the creative thinking that some students need. Schools are teaching students to write to prompts that will assure high grades on the state tests. The U.S. is creating robotic answers to ensure good test results. I am deeply saddened that critical thinking and individuality is not being encouraged. The government of China has mandated that teaching there needs to change to create more creative thinkers, and U.S. students are moving to where China was, paper and pencil robots who can perform brilliantly in any given state test. Go figure…
Thank you for your comment.
I want to teach to creativity and critical thinking. What I would like is to join a conversation with college admissions folks and college professors so that we are working together to help our students develop the skills they will need. Right now, we are all squeezed by what one parent called the undue focus of an entire year of learning on a single on hour test.
Margaret, you won’t need to engage the conversation with college professors because many of us agree with you. I am always shocked that some of my students still can’t find information on the internet or library databases. The dialogue needs to be between admissions, college accreditation organizations (who are moving more and more towards the content driven, easily tested curriculums) and the US dept. of Education, who are making a push to standardize College curriculums by imposing a national testing regime as now exists in K-12 education. There has been enough push back from college professors that this idea has been put on the back burner. However, if businesses and politicians keep pushing for this type of “accountability”, you may find the standardized tests and shallow learning at the college level!
This “accountability” stems right from the top. Obama and his crew with “Race to the Top” encourages this testing. I voted for him. I am so disappointed with the “educational” decisions that have been made in this country. When I attended the National Council of Social Studies conference and Obama’s sister was a key-note speaker, she described an incredibly rich curriculum she was teaching. A teacher in the audience asked her how she could teach so creatively with the current administration stressing tests ad nauseum…She said, “I teach in an all girls’ private school in Hawaii.” All of the teachers begged Maya to speak to her brother. Many Social Studies teachers in middle schools and high schools have been asked to switch to literacy for the sake of passing the tests. In a global world, this is such a mistake. I was the only elementary teacher at my school to give so much time to integrating social studies with language arts. It took me months to teach the culture of China to my students – in-depth reflective learning. The other teachers were done in three weeks. Talk about shallow teaching! Teachers need to be re-trained to make learning motivating, integrated and meaningful. If the learning is deep and engaging, then the students will pass the tests. My students always scored on the higher end, and I never taught to the tests. The Common Core Standards are good, but it the implementation of them that fails.
However, part of the problem is with the tests themselves (see the comment/discussion below). For students who are true critical thinkers, the tests can be open to interpretation. Those that can align their thinking with the test makers, do a good job on any test. My daughter’s school is 100% project based learning which means all learning includes problem solving, critical reading/thinking, multiple assessments including testing, presentations, and learning artifacts, and group work. However, the pressure from the state for good test scores and the public publication of student outcomes with teacher names means teachers are beginning to drift back into less effective teaching practices rather than be publicly villafied.
The school your daughter goes to sounds amazing! My daughter would over-think the tests as well. She is such a critical thinker. In high school, she solved physics algorithms without the formulas. When she was put into an AP Physics class in senior year, the teacher insisted she use the formulas. She dropped the course from stress. The tests do not reflect these kinds of thinkers. Do you mind telling us what school your daughter goes to? I am always interested in researching what makes “good schools.” Project based learning is the way to engage students. Good projects help them synthesize information and create. My son craved project-based learning, and did not get as much as he needed in high school. He is now getting his Masters in Architecture – an all project-based creative learning environment.
She goes to Tech Valley High School which is part of New Tech Network schools (public schools throughout the country) http://www.newtechnetwork.org/
My son excelled on the SAT II’s because he broke the code for how they think. This has not helped in college at all. The fact that he could figure out that there was a code to the test demonstrated his critical thinking skills which have been what helped him as a history/anthropology/classics major.
My daughter, on the other hand, does terrible on standardized tests because she overthinks it. She also complained that there was no context to the questions. The questions you posed give context.
As a professor at the college level, I have brilliant students who have not been taught to synthesize information and do a basic analysis. They can describe what they read, but they can’t apply it to their own lives or “messy problems”. I am teaching them the skills now that employers will want (problem solving, analytic, communication, critical thinking), but they are almost too old to develop these.
Personally, I think they should require students to take the tests with access to the internet. Anyone can access information, but it takes skill and knowledge to apply that information.
BTW: Our admissions office just surveyed faculty to help them develop criteria for the types of students we would like to see in our classes. I basically told them what I said above. I don’t think standardized tests measure success as my best students transferred in from community colleges because their test scores weren’t good enough initially.
Thank you for your email. Tomorrow my US History students will compare the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the 2002 Iraq Resolution. They will have spent a lot of time developing a context for this examination.
You are so right about context. How often do we need to answer random content questions (and when we do we almost always have access to the internet or other sources of information such as each other)? Rather we are asked to do something with what we know and the context is important to this process. Learning to write a strong introduction to an essay includes developing an ability to provide context for the essay.
I think you’ve hit one of my “raw nerves”. I get what they’re attempting to do, but hate the unintended consequences. What problem are they trying to overcome by asking students to complete these tests?
In these case of these subject area tests is it because of the grade inflation problem we have? Are colleges hesitant to trust HS grades because they don’t accurately reflect a student’s ability? Not they are exempt from the same problem, I’ll venture to say, but I guess that is the problem for grad schools, med schools and law schools to solve.
My other question is this….because there are sections devoted to science and social studies on the ACT is there the same need if students show college readiness using this test instead of the SAT? I went to school back East and most colleges relied on SAT and now that I live in the Midwest most colleges seem to use the ACTs. Is this a regional difference?
Frankly I wouldn’t want my kids to go to a college/university that wasn’t smart enough to know how to get a good application without multiple high stakes tests. It seems to set the stage for what they aren’t able to discern about people…and if I’m going to spend thousands and thousands of $$$$, those institutions better figure that out. I want my money’s worth for my kids’ education and not some uniform, standardized higher ed prescribed education.
Marsha, I have a son who has just completed his 1st yr and a daughter who is currently a junior in HS. Currently ACTs and SATs are accepted by most colleges equally. Most schools now require if you submit SAT’s that you also take the SAT2 subject tests so there is testing on broader content like the ACT. So if you take the ACT’s many schools don’t require the SAT subject exams. The AP exams and college level courses are used (depending on the college) to grant college credit. There are, in fact, some very good schools (such as NYU) where standardized test scores are optional or not required. You can check them out on fairtest.org. Most schools have certain criteria they are looking for. My son had the same grades, test scores, and after school activities as friends who got into Notre Dame. However, he did not have the same level of service learning and his views are much more liberal. He did not get in. Other schools he got into very few of his friends did (he got into a number of large public universities) but other private schools he did not get into whereas others in his class with lower grades and standardized test scores did. So there is other criteria used by colleges.