Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, March 06, 2018 1:00 am

Elementary insight

ISTEP sending kids wrong message on learning

Christer Watson

I was putting my two sons to bed last week when my older one, in third grade, starting talking about the upcoming ISTEP tests. It was pretty hard for me to contain my anger. I was angry for several reasons. Most personal, of course, was that my 9-year-old boy shouldn't worry about performing on a test.

More fundamentally, however, these tests have grown in importance wildly in excess of their value. These tests haven't earned their value. As someone who cares about science, who adamantly believes that strong claims require strong evidence, that is infuriating.

My son has now taken the first week of the ISTEP+ exam. There is a second week in April as well as a week of a reading exam (IREAD) in a couple of weeks. The time in class, and in recovery, is bad enough. However, it has been a revelation to me to see the buildup to the exams.

Third graders are not, shall we say, the best natural test-takers. They typically fiddle and squirm, want to go to the bathroom, drop their pencils and, sometimes – heaven forbid – don't actually try their hardest on any given day. Schools clearly have realized that to get the best scores from every kid, this natural behavior has to be suppressed for three weeks. They practice, they are repeatedly reminded of the exam's importance and some kids learn the lesson to be scared of the exam.

I don't like seeing that effect on a kid who, otherwise, really likes learning new ideas. I really, really don't like that being done in the name of testing ideas such as multiplication and fractions.

I'm not sure whether my credibility matters here, but I actually really enjoy exams. During my second year in college, I spent three hours on a physics final exam that was intended for half that time. The last hour and a half I spent on one problem that I couldn't manage to get. The professor eventually took the exam from me.

In my third year of college, I once stayed up all night working on a take-home math exam. Again, there was one problem I couldn't manage to get. I kept hoping for the deep insight that sometimes comes as a gift from beyond. The gift didn't come and I didn't end up getting that problem. I did, weirdly, enjoy the process. I enjoyed the time to concentrate on some hard idea to see whether I could see a new pattern.

When I haven't succeeded on exams, I have mostly respected the process. When students apply for graduate school in physics or astronomy, they typically have to take a physics-specific exam. It is a legendarily difficult exam. A friend of mine put his fist through a window after taking that exam. When I took the exam, I could tell that it was, partly, designed for students with significantly more skill and insight than I. I was not understanding several questions. Although it was hard to accept, I eventually made peace with that.

So I really don't disagree with the concept of using tests for meaningful evaluation. I don't disagree with hard exams. What I find most frustrating and infuriating about the current tests, especially at the elementary school level, is how deeply distracting they are.

The exams above all had a positive effect on my education because they directed me toward thinking deeply about math and physics. Preparing for the exams and learning the subjects were nearly the same thing.

I don't see that close connection in the elementary school exams. Because there isn't a close connection, the extreme emphasis on these tests removes the motivation to really explore new ideas. I guess it probably tests whether a 9-year-old understands what 1/3 means. The whole structure around the exams, however, makes it is harder for a 9-year-old to develop any real interest in numbers.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.