So your kid came home with an A in geometry last June, or maybe it was chemistry. And yet when you ask her over dinner to recall the formula for sines, or remind you just what C2H, is, she draws a blank. Now the National Science Foundation has caught up with this little problem. In a study released last week, it concluded that standardized tests, as well as those in many math and science textbooks, do more harm than good and that kids windup knowing less than they might have if the tests had never happened.
Standardized tests were supposed to hold teachers' feet to the fire-make them work hard to fill little minds with the concepts, principles and facts of science and math. The minds do get filled-for about as long as the test lasts. Then, like a phone number that you stare at, use once and then erase from memory, most of that math and science evaporates. Classes that "memorize" trig formulas in November can't remember a thing about them in May.
It's not hard to figure out why. As education scholars have long known, the pressure to boost a school's test scores makes teachers "teach to the test"-drill kids on the information they'll be expected to spit back a few days later.(The situation is especially bad in schools with high minority populations, NSF found, because of the high stakes attached to test scores there.) But neuroscientists know that information is retained only if it is linked to other concepts and facts, like nodes in a spider web. Tests encourage the learning of isolated information, which is by necessity temporary. NSF found that the most common type of question on widely used fourth-grade, eighth-grade and high-school standardized tests and textbook quizzes encouraged superficial learning--not the problem-solving and critical thinking pushed by reformers. "About 95 percent of the questions required only low-order thinking skills" such as memorization says Boston College's George Madaus, the study's principal researcher. Until tests are reformed, reforms in goals, standards and teaching methods won't have much impact.
Oh, all right. C2H, is ethylene.