If Only They’d ‘Listen’

The above trailer is for a documentary an MU student made. A friend of a friend, he took off a semester to travel the country and make a film about the problem with standardized testing in schools.

“Why do teachers tell me to think outside the box when they never let me out of it?” one child at the end of the trailer wonders.

I’ve wondered that, too. Tests — and that kind of rigid, structured learning — have never done much for me.

My first school, Cliff Valley, was not quite a Montessori school, but its motto was “learn through play.” Basically, that meant we abandoned the traditionally rigid primary school day in favor for a few scheduled activities, spending much of our time doing what we chose to do — and, therefore, learning what we chose to learn.

As my mom put it, I “thrived” at Cliff Valley. I made up games with my friends on the playground. I wrote and illustrated picture books. I brought my own books (the “Nancy Drew” series was my Pre-K favorite) and read them. I even led a class initiative to establish a “library,” organizing the creation of library cards and the construction of a door (made of tape, because that’s what we had available).

Then, in first grade, I entered the public school system.

Now, I did learn a lot in my 12 years there. I had some excellent teachers who encouraged me to think for myself, think of possibilities outside the box and push myself to do better, and I’ll forever be thankful for those teachers.

But for the most part, the most valuable lessons were ones I learned outside the curriculum — life lessons from being in such a diverse school and being involved in a laundry list of extracurriculars.

From first grade on, much of the focus was on testing. We needed to learn what would be on the ITBS. We needed to focus on our Springboard lesson prompts. We needed to “remember” concepts we weren’t covering for Benchmark assessments and the state’s graduation test — concepts we would have spent time on had we been in, oh yes, a “less advanced” class than an Advanced Placement course.

Maybe it was that this talk interrupted thoughtful class discussion. Maybe it was that I didn’t respect a test that had three questions with no correct answer choices and at least five typos. Maybe it was that, honestly, I usually didn’t have to put in much effort to do well.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always thought tests just weren’t that important.

I don’t think I ever really studied for a test in high school (not even the SAT or the ACT — sorry not sorry). I didn’t really care enough to. I’d glance over notes the night before, perhaps reread the chapters. I’d go in the next day and usually score in the A range; if not, I’d get a high B. It’d usually balance out into an A average by the end of the semester anyway, so it didn’t make a difference.

I’d spend that time I should’ve spent studying on other pursuits: attending club meetings, memorizing lines for a theater production, proofreading the yearbook or picking out potential font combinations for the literary magazine.

And I don’t regret a single minute of that because I can list more useful information and skills I learned doing those activities — activities I wanted and chose to do — than I ever learned sitting in a classroom or studying notes.

I read — a lot. I listen. I talk. I write. I create.

This, and not through testing, is how I learn, and I know I’m not alone. I just hope that someday, somebody stops to listen and reconsider this emphasis on standardized testing.

And by “someday,” I really mean “now.”

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