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A Pep Rally for Tests? What We Need Is a 'Prep' Rally

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STANDARDIZED TESTING

First, let me say that I'm not specifically picking on the teachers and kids at Emerson Elementary in Pennsylvania, who put together this 12-plus minute video of their Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) pep rally for the state standardized tests, and posted it to TeacherTube a couple of weeks ago. Do a search on YouTube and you can find dozens of similar efforts. I am, however, picking on a culture of schooling that feels the need to pump up students for test-taking with chanting and dancing that, on some level, makes me actually shudder as a parent. Take a look. (Skip to 3:07 if you want to get the gist of event.)

You have to wonder, is this really what we've come to in schools? That we have to remind kids that they are "bigger than the test" and show pictures of kids with captions like "6th Grade: Not Afraid" in an effort to steel their nerves? That showing what they've "learned" in schools is something they have to mentally prepare themselves for instead of just naturally exhibit? Really?

As I said, Emerson is not alone in this pep rally effort. But I wonder what the parents of those kids at Emerson think of this. Sad to say, most of them probably are just going along with the flow, missing the whole point of what their kids are really learning by going through this exercise -- that the test is what we do school for, and that it's something to be conquered.

It's not the test that parents and kids should fear. It's the loss of real learning that these kinds of assessments cost them. To summarize my ranting TEDxNYEd talk from last month: If all we want for our kids is to pass the test, we really don't need schools any longer. Just load 'em up with a computer, an Internet connection and some test prep guides, and send them to Khan Academy or any number of other similar sites, and let them go crazy.

But here is why we don't want to do that. In that type of interaction, we lose all the beauty of learning, the passion behind it, the motivation for it, the engagement that comes with the process of thinking deeply about things we care about, asking big questions and finding big answers together. And, most importantly, putting those answers to good use by applying them in ways that add to our collective knowledge, not just end up as filled-in bubbles on the test.

I know what those teachers at Emerson and other places are trying to do. They're trying to help their kids be successful because this is how the politicians and businessmen and 100 years of tradition have defined success. But don't miss the point: the tests have little to do with learning. The tests we give our kids aren't assessing their learning; they are assessing their knowledge. At the end of the day, the PSSA won't show one thing about what kids can actually do with any of the stuff they've spent countless hours of test prep getting ready for.

Ironically (or maybe not so ironically), some parents in Pennsylvania are saying "ENOUGH!" They're going to their legislators and educating them on the reality of the current testing culture that is harming kids and leaving them worse off as learners. They're pulling their kids out of the test to make a statement, one that is a personal statement for now but, if more people join in, could send a powerful message to the education "leaders" in this country that we have to think differently.

What's most disconcerting, however, is the message all of this sends to our kids about learning -- that it's all about mastering content and skills that other people think are important, that all of the rewards are extrinsic, and that success is more about what we know than what we can do with what we know. None of this tells us anything about the qualities we most want from our children: a love of learning, a willingness and the patience to grapple with important, real problems, and the ability to make sense of the world as they experience it. And there's no doubt that those things are getting lost in the process of prepping for the test.

And besides, we don't need pep rallies for kids who love learning, do we?

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