Tuesday, March 27, 2007

For the "Kids" -- bring back essay tests

On Monday, March 26, DC Examiner ran a whimsical op-ed by Fairfax County high school English teacher Erica Jacobs, “A Teacher’s Weekend.” The link is here. She gives a diary or journal of getting through grading 137 essay exams, shortly before quarter grades are due. She even, tongue-in-cheek perhaps, invites the public to help her grade her next set of essay papers.

These days, when I substitute, I do see a large number of multiple choice exams. This is even true in math and physics, where I when I went to school tests were all problems, with full credit given only for showing all work. I even remember, in pre-calculator days, the mantra of “slide rule accuracy” on physics and chemistry tests. All states now mandate a heavy schedule of exams that students must pass at different grades to graduate; in Virginia they are called SOL’s (Standards of Learning). Most of these tests are multiple choice, although there are free-response writing tests. I am by education a math person, and I have to say that the algebra and geometry tests don’t look that bad. (In geometry, make sure you understand inverse, converse, and contraposition in logical reasoning!) Full-time teachers eventually have to pass Praxis exams in the subject areas, and these multiple choice tests often have many problems of some complexity, more that one can reasonably work in two hours. When I worked for a life insurance company, I got certified in LOMA, which was ten multiple choice tests, often compound condition questions. In information technology, some companies like Brainbench offer an array of certification tests, the individual multiple-choice equestions often being complex problems (how many rows would be returned by this compound SQL query, etc.) I have been paid to make up at least one such test, and perhaps test composition will provide income in the future of pseudo-retirement. In most states, people pass an easy multiple choice test to get a driver’s license. On one job, as a debt collector, you had to score 100 on a multiple choice and true-false test on the FDCPA law before starting work. One good variation of the multiple choice test that I see chemistry teachers use is a test where the student has to write a brief explanation of his choice for full credit. There are other variations, including guessing penalties, and more than one correct answer (which LOMA handles with compound condition questions: A & D, C only, B only, etc.)

Nevertheless, the real world of work is not a multiple choice world. It is about getting jobs done, getting things right in a production environment day after day (after careful testing and implementation, in information technology) and often about people skills and the ability to persuade others to accept your employer’s message (that is, the dreaded word, selling). And the real world of social justice and politics is multiple-facted indeed. It is about understanding how people very different from the self think, and why. And the best way to see that students understand this is, guess what, make them put it in words and write essays.

In 11th grade at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA back in 1959-1960 (then, during the Sputnik era, one of the top ten public high schools in the nation) I had a “Virginia and United States History” teacher who insisted on giving tests as all essay. A typical test would have identifications and then four essay questions, to finish in a 55 minute period (we didn’t have alternating blocks in those days). You got writer’s cramp. I made a 79 on the first test (that was a D according to the scale) because I lost 15 points on a question about mercantilism in the British colonies. (He got that test, given on a Monday, graded and back to us the next day!) I don’t remember a lot of the other questions now. In those days, it was acceptable to use the word “Negro” and he once asked a question about the role of the former slaves in presidential elections during the Reconstruction. We had to write an in-class book report on John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. As the year progressed, he would offer choices of questions. On the final, we had to answer ten out of 25 questions, and I was barely able to do that, but I eked out an A in the course. I recall one question about the significance of the Fall Line, a concept that would mean something to East Coast residents but probably be overlooked in California schools. The teacher created so much controversy that he had to give one multiple choice test at mid-term. The big bugaboo for him when he graded essay answers was “leaving out” things in answers. He wanted you to understand all the reasons something happened. Whenever you came to class, you waited for one of two commands: either “Take out a paper and pencil for a quiz please” (yes, a short essay, and it could be on current events), or “Turn in your texts…” (The Big Relief for the day.)

We had essay tests in other classes. On a tenth grade English final, I remember that there was a question on Julius Ceasar regarding Antony’s motives. In government, more of the tests were objective, but the semester test in January 1961 was to compare communism, fascism and democracy, something done well by the World Book Encyclopedia of that day.

In mathematics, we would learn to write structured essays by proving theorems in plane geometry. Remember the “Given” and “To Prove” and the charts of statements and reasons (usually definitions, postulates, or previously proved theorems)? That is structured reasoning and the beginning of critical thinking. Later, as in advanced calculus in college and in graduate school, one simply writes mathematical proofs in paragraph form. A good example is proving that the Euler number e is irrational, by assuming that it is rational and reaching a contradiction.

Social studies concepts are often hard to get in high school because they refer to worlds different from what we live in today. The same tends to be true of literary classics that are often mandatory reading in high school and often the subject of tests. (How well do most people today really appreciate what Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) was really doing when he wrote Huckleberry Finn?) They also usually refer to problems that treat people in groups (by nationality, religion, race, gender, etc.) rather than as individuals. That is partly because our notions of public morality have always assumed people could morally be circumscribed in their own opportunities by mandatory loyalty to family, tribe, nation, religion, or the like. Modern liberalism and individualism, growing substantially since I graduated from high school, have challenged these assumptions.

That’s where the critical thinking comes full circle, as to tackle the kinds of problems we have today, people have to tie all of these loose ends together. That’s what that history teacher demanded of us. (That history teacher, a military combat veteran but very much a political liberal himself, was determined to train a generation of social and political activists, as was my government teacher next year.) Yesterday, I attended a demonstration, on the West Lawn of the Capitol, for lifting the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy regarding gays in the military. The arguments seem simple enough, and what one doesn’t see at such an event is the enormous social and political complexity (enough to fill 185000 words in my own “screed” discussed in previous postings) that has made an issue like this come to a head – even in Iraq, and become a genuine national security problem. A good topic for an essay question in a government class these days is “judicial activism,” and another good topic would be “federalism”. What hot-button problems illustrate the constitutional questions? Two of them would be sodomy laws (Lawrence v. Texas in 2003), and now, gay marriage, where the activism is by state judges and there are questions of national recognition and local democratic choice. In my own thinking, I have wanted to cast all of these questions about liberty and public morality in terms of “personal responsibility” (including individual sharing of burdens) and objectivism. Yet, I can see how some of these don’t get resolved without the heart, and the capacity of adults to connect with people, including “kids”, at their own level. Our educational system has to prepare students for a competitive world and society, and yet it may be forgetting where cooperation has to start.

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