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Hassle-Free Homework: Achievement Tests Contribute To America's Decline

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U.S. School System Discourages Divergent, Creative Thinkers

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My husband and I lived in a city where the public school system was terrible so I have homeschooled my children since day one. But he was recently transferred with his job and now we live in another state.

Here's my problem. I can still homeschool in this state but my son, who is at fifth-grade level must take achievement tests. Our daughter is only a first-grader so she's not required to take achievement tests yet.

I know my children are smart. They have learned what they need and more. In fact, my son is currently building a replica of a human body, but he has never had an achievement test before. What should I do?

Michelle M.
Nashville, TN

Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Photo: Rupert Yen

Dear Michelle:

Tennessee's achievement tests, part of the TCAP assessments, are like any other achievement tests in that they are measures from the past, yet they are still considered the key indicators of educational success.

And yes, you are correct. Tennessee law requires homeschoolers to be tested in the 5th, 7th and 9th grades. You can go to the Tennessee Dept. of Education site for more information on TCAP at http://www.state.tn.us/education/.

Assessment

In a world that begs for divergent thinkers (people who can think "outside the box," meaning thinking the uncommon that could lead to extraordinary innovations), our children are measured, through achievement tests, on their capacity to be convergent thinkers - to select the one right answer to a problem that actually may have multiple answers.

Michelle, you are no doubt like many homeschooling parents who give their children experiences that go beyond drill sheets and fill-in-the-blank, true-false, and pick-the-one-right-answer-only tests.

I have plenty of experience with homeschooling parents and homeschooled children. I know that many parents put in great extra effort to teach their children how to find the nuances in situations and avoid staying at a literal level.

Homeschooled children, because they read between the lines and think of possible answers that the test writers did not consider, are often penalized. According to standardized tests, they seem to lack ability because they did not or do not follow the "herd" mentality when answering test questions.

Instead, homeschoolers are able to question the questions, yet when a test expects the homeschoolers to stay with "the herd," straying or adventuring is a definite negative.

What To Do

Michelle, you can help your child prepare for the test by explaining to him and helping him understand that a standardized test expects him to read and answer the questions from the list of answers provided. Explain to him that he is not to think about possible answers that weren't included as potential answers to questions.

No doubt your child knows this middle step of ideation, demonstrates ownership of knowledge, and yet this is not desired on achievement tests. However, ideation is one of the most desired qualities in real life.

For a standardized test, only three skills are needed:
Rote memorization
Application
First impressions

For this reason, many books on test-taking strategies advise not to change answers after selecting them since thinking may actually hurt the test-taker. In both homeschooling and traditional classroom situations, there are a variety of ways to prepare students to achieve on standardized tests. Here are some suggestions:

Have your child read short statements and retell them on a digital tape recorder. If your child has an iPod or other MP3 device, you can record on those as well. Your child should listen to his account and re-read the paragraph, taking note if his account is in any way different. Just because answers are different does not mean they are wrong. But, on standardized tests, differences could make the child answer questions inappropriately or force him to re-read the text and answers, losing valuable test time.

Follow up on his exercise by going from the recording to written retells. Have your child highlight differences (due to his own ideation rather than lack of comprehension) between his written paragraph and the one he recorded. Help him see how inferences and interpretations may not be appropriate for standardized tests.

Have your child practice tests under the same time limitations that the standardized test will impose. Once again, timed testing is greatly interested in the speed of recall and response rather than pensive, world-changing responses.

Teach your child the plus-minus system. As your child reads the questions or problems, have him first answer the ones that he knows immediately. If he finds a question he knows but will take a long time to do, have him put a plus (+) beside it, and keep going to the next question. If your child finds a question, that he does not understand, have him put a minus (-) next to it. After your child has completed a section of the test, then he can go back and spend time on the pluses first. If those are completed within the time limit, he should, lastly, attempt the minuses.

Standardized tests purposely insert more convoluted questions to see if a child will become stumped or will keep on going. You must be sure your child knows how to skip these by assessing a plus or minus and not be stumped.

These tests are placed in high regard and valued by a school system that produces people who can memorize, recall facts and concepts, and select from a list of provided answers.

In today's world, convergent thinkers are no longer as valued in the workplace as divergent thinkers are. The number of pink slips covering the country is proof of this, and a message we certainly should take seriously.

Regardless of what your child makes on these tests, be comforted in the thought that standardized tests are simply another dinosaur in a dinosaur land called the U.S. school system. Somehow the dinosaurs need to know how successful they are in making better dinosaurs. That's why they insist on achievement tests and why the school system continues to produce convergent thinkers. It's also why many of the students who have graduated from our school system, regardless of high or low test scores, are not employable.

Teachers have no choice but to give these tests. Parents simply concede. It will stay this way until parents unite and demand the school system be changed. So, Michelle, make sure you do not waste too much time on preparing your son for these tests. Instead, those good at convergent thinking only are rapidly being devalued in a global world that demands people who can think divergently.

CONTACT DR. FOURNIER

Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child's schoolwork or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at drfournier@hfhw.net.

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