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By Kenneth Bernstein You are a college professor. I have just retired as a high school teacher. I have some bad news for you. In case you do not already see what is happening, I want to warn you of what to expect from the students who will be arriving in your classroom, even if you teach in a highly selective institution.
While it is true that the US Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools.
Troubling Assessments My primary course as a teacher was government, and for the last seven years that included three or four out of six sections of Advanced Placement AP US Government and Politics.
My students, mostly tenth-graders, were quite bright, but already I was seeing the impact of federal education policy on their learning and skills. With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift.
Further, most of the tests being guidelines for writing a summary 5th grade consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays.
Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure.
Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education.
Recognizing this, those of us in public schools do what we can to work on those higher-order skills, but we are limited. Remember, high schools also have tests—No Child Left Behind and its progeny such as Race to the Top require testing at least once in high school in reading and math.
High schools are also forced to focus on preparing students for tests, and that leads to a narrowing of what we can accomplish in our classrooms. I mentioned that at least half my students were in AP classes.
The explosive growth of these classes, driven in part by high school rankings like the yearly Challenge Index created by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, is also responsible for some of the problems you will encounter with students entering your institutions.
The College Board did recognize that not everything being labeled as AP met the standards of a college-level course, so it required teachers to submit syllabi for approval to ensure a minimal degree of rigor, at least on paper.
But many of the courses still focus on the AP exam, and that focus can be as detrimental to learning as the kinds of tests imposed under No Child Left Behind. I served several times as a reader for the examination that follows the course.
I saw several problems. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer.
A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support.
Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics. My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing.
My teaching was not evaluated on the basis of how well my students did, but I felt I had a responsibility to prepare them for the examination in a way that could result in their obtaining college credit.
I would like to believe that I prepared them to think more critically and to present cogent arguments, but I could not simultaneously prepare them to do well on that portion of the test and teach them to write in a fashion that would properly serve them at higher levels of education.
Even during those times when I could assign work that required proper writing, I was limited in how much work I could do on their writing. I had too many students. In my final year, with four sections of Advanced Placement, I had AP students as well as an additional forty-six students in my other two classes.
A teacher cannot possibly give that many students the individualized attention they need to improve their writing. Imagine that I assign all my students a written exercise.
If it takes a more realistic five minutes per paper, the total is more than thirteen hours. Further, the AP course required that a huge amount of content be covered, meaning that too much effort is spent on learning information and perhaps insufficient time on wrestling with the material at a deeper level.
I learned to balance these seemingly contradictory requirements. For much of the content I would give students summary information, sufficient to answer multiple-choice questions and to get some of the points on rubrics for the free response questions.
That allowed me more time for class discussions and for relating events in the news to what we learned in class, making the class more engaging for the students and resulting in deeper learning because the discussions were relevant to their lives.
From what I saw from the free response questions I read, too many students in AP courses were not getting depth in their learning and lacked both the content knowledge and the ability to use what content knowledge they had.Mar 18, · Summary of the Clinical Evidence Review Primary Clinical Questions.
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