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Testing and The Internet

by Julia Sneden

Peter Allen, an NBC newsman, covered what seemed to be a new story on the NBC nightly news the other evening. As a retired teacher, however, I recognized the story’s subject as just an up-dated version of some very old questions about the best ways to educate our children.

It seems that at Kent Middle School in the state of Washington, there are teachers who allow students to use computers during tests and pop quizzes. Apparently there are also parents who are up in arms over the practice, claiming that there’s little point to giving a test if a child may use the Internet to help him answer the questions. In essence, the controversy boils down to whether one views the Internet as tool or crutch.

Haven’t those parents ever heard of an open book test? When I was in high school and college, those were the tests we dreaded the most. They may have provided you with “answers,” but they made you think. A classroom open book test using the textbook was bad enough, but the worst open-book tests were take-home assignments involving use of the library and any other resources you could find.

It was much easier just to memorize facts and spit them out in true-false fashion on a test. For an open book test, you had to know not only how to look up facts, but how to marshal them to support your argument, and how to articulate that argument in a persuasive manner.

I find it heartening that middle school teachers are extending the use of the open book strategy to include the Internet. Middle school seems to me to be an optimal moment for teaching a child how to expand the basic skills (i.e. reading and math) that he or she acquired during elementary school. Middle school children are at a good age to move on to more sophisticated training in logical thinking skills, and the expression thereof.

The people who want children to memorize every fact presented in class and spit them back on a test are, albeit unintentionally, interfering with a process that should go hand-in-hand with good memory training. It’s not enough simply to memorize the facts. One needs to know how to use them.

Actually, if one has read and understood the material, the most important facts are likely to have stuck in the memory anyway, with little effort. If they have not stuck fast, it is more than likely that the reader will remember where to go to refresh them. Memorizing is a useful tool, but it is not the only tool. Learning how and where to look things up is every bit as important.

Dr. Barbara Grohe, Superintendent of the Kent School District, was quoted as saying: “It’s interesting to me that when we have children do it [use the Net] in their workplace, we worry that they might be cheating. When adults do it, we say those are truly competent adults.”

It is too bad that some parents, who may or may not be familiar with the amazing and informative tool that is the Internet, are so flat-out opposed to its use in schools. They condemn it without looking into the subject more carefully. Have the parents who object to the Kent School’s testing practice really looked at those tests and pop quizzes? As a former teacher, I am quite sure that the questions on such tests are deeply challenging, probing not only the student’s knowledge of a subject, but also her knowledge of how to use research tools. Any child planning to go on to college should be thanking her lucky stars for such a teacher.

Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes. Would it be easier to make up a test or quiz with simple answers, or a test with open-ended questions? And wouldn’t it be easier to grade the former? Reading each answer on the open book (or Internet) test would require much more time and effort on the part of the instructor.

It seems to me that we should be grateful for a teacher who is willing to increase her work load (God knows, without overtime pay!) on behalf of the children.

But we are often quick to jump in and offer ill-informed opinions on a school’s curriculum and educational practices. I am reminded of one unpleasant parent conference I had when I was teaching kindergarten. I have actually told the story before in this space, but I think it bears repeating.

The child showed every sign of having problems with his visual memory, problems of a kind that made it difficult for him to discern and recall the differences between letters. I tried to describe the difficulty, but before I could describe the steps we were taking to remedy it, his father immediately asked whether I used flash-cards to teach the alphabet, as his first grade teacher had done. Flash cards, he was sure, were the very best way to teach reading, and if only I would use them his child’s problem would go away.

Unfortunately, it came out during the conversation that he himself was a functional illiterate who had hated school and dropped out at 16. But he was quite sure that flash cards were the way to learn to read, because that is what his teacher had told him.

He was the victim of the worst kind teacher, the kind who is certain that there is only one way to teach something, a teacher who holds onto that belief even in the face of failure. She then labels the child as a slow learner, thus deflecting the blame that should be hers for having failed in her task. In point of fact, there are many ways to teach reading, and a good teacher, faced with a child who cannot learn by one method, will try another.

As a master teacher I knew once said: “Until every child in your classroom has learned, you have not taught.”

Surely, we parents and grandparents should have vital input into our children’s educations. We have every right to question new methods and practices. But it seems to me that we should try very hard to understand the purposes behind those practices, as well as the reasoning of the educators, before we condemn them. And perhaps we shouldn’t be so certain that our own educations represent the only way to learn.

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