Friday, January 16, 2015

Testing: Placebo or Salve?

I woke up to the news today that Arizona has passed a law that requires high school students to pass a "civics test" before they can walk away with a diploma or GED. The supposed aim of this test (which is required to be given by both public and private school) is for students to demonstrate an education in American civic life. Another stated goal by one of the groups behind the bill is to build a sense of patriotism in students.

The test can be taken starting in eighth grade, and can be taken as many times as possible to pass. One irony of the test is that only a 60% score is required to pass it. In other words, failing is passing. And what kind of patriot is being created - assuming the mere act of testing someone could produce such an effect - if the bar is set that low?

Now word is the test is effectively the same one given to immigrants to pass before they are granted citizenship. That's fine I suppose, but the problem for this test when it is applied to high school students (starting in 2017) is that it amounts to little more than a long multiple choice quiz. There are no requirements, designs, guidelines, expectations, curriculum, or anything else, to prepare the students to actually be good citizens.

The Joe Foss Institute, creators of this testing initiative, state that this is a way to ensure students understand the basics of American government. Judging by the sample tests in the linked stories, this "test" is definitely just a long quiz. There's no thinking to the answers, there are no lengthy response-style questions...its really more of a historical factoids test than anything else. But the JFI, also based in Arizona, seeks to convince every state legislature in the land to adopt a similar law. With the advent of ALEC and its disturbing influence, crafting law has now become an assembly-line process that others are modeling.

Maybe I'm expecting too much here, but this seems like a really pathetic initiative, considering the bill was paper-airplaned through the GOP-dominated state legislature in less than 24 hours before being sent to the new governor. And its inexplicable initiatives like these that sail through state houses unchallenged while teachers are being fired in local school districts as cities continue to vote down even flat public school spending. Maybe that 60% score isn't so low after all, when one teacher will be "teaching" 40 children in one room.

So the question must be asked: is a test like this a placebo, or a salve for a real problem. And if it's a placebo, who is swallowing it; students, or voters?

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