Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Old MacDonald had a standardized test

I read an interesting article in the New York Times today: A Moo-Moo Here, and Better Test Scores Later. It's a really interesting (and relatively short) article, so definitely check it out if you have a couple minutes to spare. But if you're too busy, here's my one sentence summary: A school in Harlem takes their kindergarten class to the Queens County Farm Museum (it's a working historical farm, not a museum of farm stuff) to teach them about farms so that they'll do better on standardized tests later in elementary school.

For anyone who wasn't raised in an urban setting (which I think includes the vast majority of people who read this blog), the kids' reactions are a little surprising (for example, 5-year-olds who didn't know that eggs come from chickens). But the whole article kinda makes me go "Huh?", not to mention "....huh."

For starters, it's astounding to me that these kids have no idea where their food comes from. But then I think about the environment that they live in and the fact that it's not so easy to make a connection between a Chicken McNugget and the bird it was named after. And these kids are just starting school, which means that most of their education up to this point was left to their parents, who were probably less inclined than their more affluent, white, suburban/rural counterparts to read books at home that included farms or farm animals.

But it's also astounding to me that the reason for this field trip was not to introduce kids to an important aspect of life or expose them to a new environment; the point was to help them do better on the standardized tests that they'll take in a few years. What does this say about the state of our education system? Why does everything have to be about the test? Why can't we focus on educating kids for life instead of prepping them for individual tests?

From a test prep standpoint, I can see why the teachers think it's important for kids to see a farm in person; most children in elementary school can't think abstractly enough to gloss over the units in a math problem (sheep, cornstalks, etc.) and just find the answer. But the fact that there are so many of these questions on a statewide test, in a state where half of the students are raised in an urban environment, makes me question those who wrote the test. There are certainly some serious class/geographical/race issues to be explored there.

I'm glad that these kids got to spend some time on a farm and learn about farm animals, but I'm saddened that this trip had to be justified as test prep. A current look at urban health issues shows that these same kids who don't understand where food comes from are also more likely to spend their lives eating junk food. Maybe a trip to the farm to learn about sheep and cows and chickens will plant a seed that will make them think more later? Or maybe the fact that I'm currently reading The Omnivore's Dilemma is making me overly optimistic on this point? Hard to say.


  1. I think NY State has gone way overboard with their standardized testing. But I'm not sure what the solution is either - part of why they have those standards is to prevent city schools from providing a sub-par education to poor kids and then graduating them anyway. And if "test prep" drives them to teach Harlem kids about pumpkins and chickens, then at least the kids getting to discover pumpkins and chickens!

  2. Aaron would heartily agree. As a teacher, he is so limited in what he can teach and how he can teach it because of the focus on standardized tests. His performance is evaluated based on his students' test scores and many want his pay to be directly tied to student performance as well. Tests like these aren't inherently bad, but when they are the sole method of evaluation they are certainly limiting.

    Lots of questions that need answers...but definitely not in the form of a standardized test!

  3. the omnivore's dilemma is a GREAT book! the whole first section about corn rocked my world a little bit. fascinating.