Closing the Loop: Creating Tests and the Content Tested

For centuries, imperial China endured an examination system that created a putative meritocracy of imperial bureaucrats.  Based on a carefully curated body of knowledge, it created a cognoscenti with no need to look “outside,” to be curious, or to explore.

I thought of it this morning as I was reading Meredith Broussard’s article for The Atlantic, “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing.” At one point, she writes:

[S]tandardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.

Though this is tangential to her point, I could not help but think of how and why we college professors choose and teach what we do, especially in the humanities. I was appalled a couple of years ago, when I was helping a high school revise its English Language Arts curriculum; I realized I recognized almost every single text being considered from my own high-high school days almost half a century ago. That made me start thinking about our text choices in college: I realized that I had fallen into what I now realize is a standard pattern of scanning tables of contents for texts I am familiar with or consider “important.” I wasn’t expanding my repertoire but was recycling the past.

Broussard’s point is that our poor schools don’t even have the texts that provide the answers to the standardized tests used to evaluate the students and that generalized knowledge that provides correct answers isn’t always enough to compensate for that lack. She gives an example of a question asking students to provide a 3-digit even number and explain their answer. She gives two answers, the second providing a number only and, therefore, receiving only half credit:

This second answer is correct, but the third-grade student lacked the specific conceptual underpinnings to explain why it was correct. The Everyday Math curriculum happens to cover this rationale in detail, and the third-grade study guide instructs teachers to drill students on it: “What is one of the rules for odd and even factors and their products? How do you know that this rule is true?” A third-grader without a textbook can learn the difference between even and odd numbers, but she will find it hard to guess how the test-maker wants to see that difference explained.

The system has been closed, participation in a textbook-testing loop the only way to succeed on the exam. No “outsider” will succeed–just as it was in imperial China.

I’ve always mistrusted “great books” formulae, for they also create a loop. It even gets to the point that we don’t even have to read the books to “know” them. Masterplots and other cribs provide the received positions and judgments. Actually experiencing the texts becomes secondary… especially when we teachers are so far removed from that experience that we, too, are lost in a sea of marginalia and apparatus. When our own research and writing is far removed from what we cover in the classroom, we tend to fall back on “standards” that we don’t even have to bother to justify. In addition, we don’t need to think much about student responses on exams and in papers: If they fall within the generally accepted parameters, we can pass them without bothering to think much at all.

Is it any wonder that textbook and test-making companies (they are now generally one and the same) should follow a similar pattern for k-12 that we have established for college?

Have we become the Confucian scholar-bureaucrats of our own time?

7 thoughts on “Closing the Loop: Creating Tests and the Content Tested

  1. The blog host may have realized that current high school texts were the same as those from decades ago — but it is also important to realize that many current college-level texts are literally exactly the same texts used in high schools today. For example, foreign language textbooks for high schools are often the same textbooks as their college-level counterparts from the same publisher but with different titles and book covers and sometimes a variation in a chapter or two.

    What does that tell us about the actual achievement level of “general education” courses — the first two years of college — in our nation’s higher education institutions?

      • How or why would we blame students for the choice of college textbooks? How does it happen that even professors in education departments are unaware of these overlaps in textbook publishing — due to their own failures to “articulate” college education and education in the schools?

        How can students be motivated to perform at a high level in “general education” courses when the assignments and subject matter are re-hashes of their high school education? Why would they not succumb to the temptation to spend more time on extra-curricular activities or to slack off on their course work while working part-time and even full-time jobs, in this context of repetition, sometimes even rote learning for multiple-choice testing, and large-size class instruction that characterizes so much of the first two years of college?

        Blame the students? Why and whatever for?

        • That’s what many people do, blame the students. They say gen-ed courses are dumbed down because of the students. Way too often, we in higher education blame students for what are, to some extent, the failures of educators, not students. This is the flip side of the movement to reward teachers for student success. In neither case is the situation so simple: Neither students nor educators should be blamed for societal problems affecting education–poverty and class, gender, race, and ethnic issues, etc. It gets worse: With a growth in reliance on contingent faculty, also, choice of textbooks is no longer the responsibility of many, many college instructors but are made by over-worked committees who don’t revisit their choices often enough.

  2. As a follow-on to Aaron’s point, I’d say that in composition and rhetoric, the scholarship and accompanying textbooks have developed and improved over the years, quite in advance of any putative tests in critical thinking (CLA), composition, design, or rhetoric. Compare Downs and Wardle’s Writing about Writing or Palmquist’s Joining the Conversation with traditional modes textbooks that are still with us. There have been advances in understanding of transfer learning, academic “mutt genres,” Genre Theory, Activity Theory, and the institutional place of comp-rhet outside the orbit of English Lit, which I think drives someone like Elizabeth Wardle to talk about re-orienting comp-rhet as an introduction to Writing Studies, rather than have it be a quixotic course on remediating all linguistic surface errors and creating disciplined critical readers with careful professional academic standards in sixteen weeks.

    What keeps the old textbook approaches in circulation? 1) There are certainly some instructors whose professional opinion is that these approaches serve their purpose (there is nothing if not a diversity of approaches to writing pedagogy). 2) Textbook publishers keep producing what textbook committees want. 3) A majority contingent labor force doesn’t get involved in textbook selection, isn’t paid to develop opinions on the matter, and receives little or no professional development to pursue an investigation of the scholarship wherein they might have time in between shuttling from campus A parking lot to campus parking B lot to develop a variety of interesting and substantial opinions about the matter. 4) That leaves a department of full-time faculty, reduced in number, but still with full-time academic and institutional obligations, to keep up with the scholarship and available approaches, and to do that independent of the tender mercies of the textbook publishers who are eager to offer their opinions about the right textbooks for that college or university’s local conditions. 5) In some, probably suspect institutions, administrators, or even faculty outside the discipline, who may have little actual familiarity with the scholarship, but with full power to decide what gets taught and how, might take upon themselves some sort of say in the matter. These factors all give weight to people’s received initial graduate training and perceptions about writing that may be decades old in terms of ever having any familiarity with issues in writing studies.

    The miracle is that any innovative pedagogy and textbooks informed by current research get out in front of the institutional and economic inertia.

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