Gee, Harvard, Ya Think?


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So apparently there is a new study out of Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Well, of course there is. That’s what they do.

Anyway, this particular study has caught my eye, my ear and my ire.

This is a study of the college admissions process, which Harvard has suddenly decided is too focused upon standardized test scores.  Yep.  Harvard has miraculously come to the realization that students need more than a list of high scores in AP classes and SAT’s and other acronymed tests in order to succeed in college and in (ahem) life.

This is, of course, NOT a surprise to any teacher in the country.  It is not a surprise to all of the groups of teachers and parents who have been pushing back against the increasing pressure to have all children succeed on the same standardized measures. It is NOT a surprise to the Badass Teachers Association, or “BATS”, of which I am a member. It won’t be a shock to United Opt Out, which I fully support.

It sure as hell isn’t a surprise to me, and I didn’t even apply to Harvard.

We should not be surprised that our “top” scholars these days are anxious, insecure, dependent upon adult affirmation and external rewards.  We start testing kids in kindergarten, and we don’t stop until they drop out, get that Ivy League Degree or end up in the hospital.

We should not be surprised that High Schools and Universities around the country are reporting increasing rates of depression, anxiety, school phobia and alcohol and drug use.

We tell five year old babies their “reading levels” so that they can choose “just right books”.  In other words, we rank order the kids from the minute they get in the door of our public schools. We give them reading tests, spelling tests, handwriting assessments, motor screenings, math tests.  Worse: we tell them the scores.

One of the hardest fights for me in my last few years of teaching was my insistence on not holding young readers to their tested reading levels. I refused to label the books in my classroom library by “reading level”.  I WANTED kids to try to challenge themselves!  I understood that it feels good to plow through a book that seems tricky.  You feel kind of smart at the end!  I also understood that “reading level” didn’t measure the child’s interest in the text. It didn’t measure the power of reading the same book that your best friend is reading so you can talk about it on the way to school.

I hated the reading assessments. Not because I didn’t want the kids to show progress, but because I did.

But I was told to measure them. I was told to give them their levels.  To show them their math scores. To make sure that they felt the pressure to improve, improve, improve.

Don’t even get me started on the pressure that they felt to pass the MCAS and now the PARRC.

Let me just tell you that I once had a child with autism who took one of those stupid tests with me.  He was smart, a strong reader, intuitive, an excellent  math student.  But he was autistic.  He tried to take the MCAS, but it was too much for him.  He gave up and tore it in two.

Then he put his head down and sobbed.  “Now I’ll never graduate from High School”, said this fourth grader. “I’ll never go to college or get a good job or get married.  And I would have been a good father!”

So guess what, Harvard?  This old teacher lady didn’t need your study to tell you that test scores aren’t the best measure of student success.  She didn’t need it to let her know that kids today are so anxious about “success” that a lot of them have forgotten about “happiness”.

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