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Standardized Testing: Is It Compatible With Computer Learning?

by Lawrence B. Bangs

We have entered a new millennium. It is full of promise, but how do we keep the promise? We are faced with two concepts: Standards and computer-assisted instruction. As we attempt to incorporate each into schools, teachers, administrators and parents must ask, "Are they compatible?" This question will have different answers in different states and for different subjects. We might consider the study of mathematics in Massachusetts or history in New Jersey and reach very contradictory conclusions. However, as we work with computers and standards some general guidelines emerge. Since history poses less of a threat to most people than mathematics, let us choose for discussion the teaching of history, and since we in New England believe history begins in Massachusetts, let us consider the problem of using the computer to teach history in Massachusetts.

The computer as an instructor is vastly underdeveloped. The programs which provide computerized instruction are only now being invented. However, the prospects for innovation are limited only by the imaginations of those who work to find new ways to tap the potential of the computer.

Any instruction should serve to accomplish two goals: The first goal is to convey information. When facts are delivered to the proper area of a brain, the basis of thought patterns is established. Conventional education has developed methods for permitting mastery of factual knowledge. The extent of mastery may be measured. We design tests to evaluate the extent to which a student has mastered facts and, with careful articulation, we may establish standards for definition of mastery of factual knowledge. Facts are necessary for success, but not sufficient.

The second goal of instruction is to stimulate a life-long interest in learning. A history teacher may prod, cajole, punish, drill or use whatever technique is effective until every student achieves a score of 80% or better on a standardized test, but that teacher has failed miserably if the class leaves muttering their disgust with history. Regardless of test scores, the class that leaves disgusted with history is a failure for their life-long learning program will have history deleted. Standardized tests cannot evaluate this aspect of learning.

If we are to answer our original question about the compatibility of computers and standards, we must consider some of the characteristics of computerized learning. Can the computer accomplish both our learning goals? Can we invent ways to measure and assign credit for the development of intellect? To answer these questions we must consider what computerized instruction offers to the student. An easily-understood example of what this new tool can do is provided by a lesson in the colonial history of Massachusetts.

The story of how the Connecticut valley was settled can illustrate how the computer can bring vitality to a subject many students include upon their dull list. In a standard curriculum, a course in social studies has replaced the study of history, so we would probably be hard pressed to find any mention of the settlement of the Connecticut valley in a social studies book. Let us assume we do have an old history book from 1970 or earlier. If we try to teach about the settlement of the Connecticut valley from such a standard textbook we would probably find no more than a single paragraph about Thomas Hooker and his followers. We could read that they migrated from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut in 1636. This would give teachers trained in the psychology of testing and measuring the opportunity to create some questions such as, "Who led the migration from Massachusetts to Hartford in 1636?" or "What city was founded by Thomas Hooker and his followers?" By reading the given descriptions two or three times and writing down the facts which might readily be put into questions, most students can be trained to achieve a passing score. But will they learn to like history? Probably not! More likely they will add history to a growing list of boring subjects. How can the computer change this? The excitement of history, like so many other things, is in discovery and with the aid of the computer, students can discover the rest of the story for themselves.

Into the memory of a computer, original sources may be scanned. These might include Bradfordís Of Plymouth Plantation, Winthropís History of New England, Hubbardís , Hubbardís General History of New England, Mary Rowlandsonís Captivity, and Benjamin Churchís King Philipís War and many others. Such items, along with town histories should soon be available if they are not already. (For other parts of the country other journals are available but the technique is the same.) So, how do we use such things?

The problem with the text was that it presented a few facts for the student to master. To see if mastery had occurred, we created a test. Once the test has been adopted and standardized we are locked into that text to find the proper answers. This becomes routine and boring and it confines the student and the teacher. New ideas are blocked by the question, "How does this fit into the standards?"

Our children have intellectual needs. They satisfy these needs by learning to think. A system which has adopted standardized tests confines the student (and teacher) to acquisition of the facts that will earn credits on those tests. This does not stimulate the process of thinking to a satisfying degree nor does it lead to a desire to pursue a lifetime of learning. The goal of learning becomes attainment of a satisfactory score rather than the accumulation of knowledge and the development of analytical thought processes. Consequently, intellect stagnates and a basic human need is not satisfied.

How are thought and excitement stimulated by computerized learning? Consider the example of the history of the Connecticut valley. We may scan into the memory the text of Bradfordís journal, and Winthropís journal. Activate either one and click on Edit. Then click on Find. The computer will ask what you want found. Type in "Connecticut." Click on Find Next. The computer will take you to the first mention of Connecticut in the journal. If you are searching through Bradford you will find it in a footnote. If you look at the text above the footnote you will discover that Bradford spells Connecticut as Conighticute. We will note this for future searches.

We may highlight the paragraph that mentions Connecticut, and copy and paste it in a new document entitled "Notes on Connecticut." To help keep things orderly it is advantageous to type the name of the journal, the date identified in the journal and the page number. If we do this repeatedly for both journals we may compile a set of notes. From these notes we discover a fascinating story.

Look at what our computer has done for us! As we read from Winthrop we discover first another way to spell Quonehtacut. We read that the sachem, Wahginnacut, has come to invite the English to settle in the Connecticut valley because the Pequots are threatening to drive the River Tribes from their land.

We note in the next passage that Sir Richard Saltonstall is returning to England and we find from Bradford that the Dutch have a claim to the Connecticut Valley but have invited the Plymouth Pilgrims to come and settle with them.

By reading more of Bradford is seen that the Plymouth people ask the people of Massachusetts Bay to join them in a joint venture but they are refused; that the Dutch have withdrawn their invitation to Plymouth and have built a fort at Hartford. The Pilgrims decide to settle above it and build a fort in Plymouth, dismantle it and stow it aboard their vessel then sail past the Dutch fort to set up their prefabricated fort at Windsor!

In the meantime, we find in Winthrop that Thomas Hooker and his followers are seeking permission from the government of Massachusetts Bay to move to the Connecticut valley. They are opposed by the leaders of Massachusetts. Suddenly Richard Saltonstall returns with a grant from the King to the entire Connecticut Valley and Winthropís son is named governor but by now, Thomas Hooker and his group have set out overland with their families and cattle to settle near Hartford.

Here is a bare outline of a fascinating story. It is one you probably have not read because it is written down only in a few places such as Johnstonís Connecticut (published in 1887) which is not on the standard reading list. The story which is presented here as fragments is scattered through various journals, town histories and genealogies. It is full of intrigue and has real people such as Bethia Kelsey, who carried her six-week-old baby through the woods to Connecticut. This outline records the first westward migration of New England pioneers. It is full of stimulation for a child. The sources provide the data to teach a child how to write, how to analyze data, how to infer meaning from implications. The journals provide the clue to teaching children how to discover history for themselves.

The brief account above does not begin to tell the story. The notes the computer identifies contain much more information. Students whose interest is piqued will ask "Did Wintrhop discourage the Pilgrims because he knew his son would be appointed governor by the king?" "What became of the River Indians?" "What was the Pequod War?" "Who were some of the people in Hookerís party and what became of them?" "Did the pilgrims end up with any land in the Connecticut valley?" "How were the conflicts among the seven groups competing for control of this valley resolved?" "Did the Dutch stay in Hartford?"

If children check the story of Bethia Kelsey or others, in a genealogy they will discover more stories. As mentioned above, she had a baby just a few weeks before she and her husband went with Hooker through the woods to Connecticut. The trip took two weeks. Students should wonder about the mother and baby -- did she make it and how? Children who are allowed to wonder will ask many questions. For some questions there are answers in the notes. For others there is need for more research. This is what stimulates a life-long pursuit of learning.

Children who question and seek answers learn to think. They develop their innate curiosity and nurture it into the adult trait that we call "intellect". They lay the foundation on which to build a lifetime of learning. Children who do not have the opportunity to explore, stagnate. They are trained to seek answers to the standardized questions. They are bored by history and, after finding many other subjects that seem void of interest, they turn to other less productive sources of stimulation and divorce themselves from reality. But gathering data is only the beginning.

What does your child (or adult) do with the data? That is up to the resourcefulness of the teacher. You might have your student(s) write this as a series of newspaper articles and use a desktop publisher to print your own paper or write a series of newscasts, set up a video camera and present the evening news of 1635 of 1636. You might use the data to write a section of a history book, or you might develop the character of the people involved by writing short stories. The possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of the teacher and the student.

From this beginning, the paths to learning diverge into an unexplored frontier. Other stories are scattered through out the journals. A child (or adult) may use the same sources and techniques to search for other stories. You do this by searching the computer for individuals you discovered in your initial search. If we ask the computer to find John Oldham we discover an interesting tale of a renegade Pilgrim whose murder brings a about the Pequod War. If we seek Nataniel Dickinson we find a tale of exploration ending with the tragedy of King Philipís War. We may find other tales which are inspiring if we search for Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Sarah Wilds, King Philip or a host of others. The list is long and fascinating and, if we care to recognize that other parts of the country also have interesting histories, we may assemble other journals and explore them as well.

There are, or example, about 40 volumes of interviews with former slaves in the libraries such as that at Dartmouth. These might be scanned and searched for stories. There are journals of explorers such as De Soto, Faux, Thwaites, Bradbury and Michaux. Each region has its explorers and many kept journals or had associates who did. Some of this material has been scanned into computers. As the task of scanning progresses, more and more information will become available at a minimal cost and as it becomes available the whole process of teaching history, (or many other subjects) will change. Home-schooling offers parents and children the advantage of finding and utilizing this wealth of resources.

Students who complete research projects such as that outlined above, are usually excited about the product they have created. They are interested in at least one phase of history and may even check into the geography of the region they have investigated. They have learned how to gather information from original sources, how to analyze it, how to assemble and present their findings. But have they learned the answers to standardized questions? Possibly not! So who has failed? Is it the student who has begun to probe into original sources in search of information, the student who has had to gather, process, and present data? Such students have learned to think. They have begun to develop their intellectual capacities. They have not failed. They will pursue the joys of learning through out their lives. The failure is with a system that cannot assign then credit for their work unless they can parrot the name of the founder of Hartford, and the date of its foundation. The failure is with a system that has a single mold into which a child must fit or fail, the system that squelches research, the system that turns its back upon the computerís power to individualize curricula. That system -- not the child -- has failed.

The stimulation of student intellect should inspire us to seek new ways to use any new tool that may emerge. It should make us ashamed to say we cannot teach a child to think because we cannot test for the quality of our results. We should seek to learn where rigid standards have been imposed in the past. If we but look we might see examples such as we find in nineteenth-century England. This, and other examples are described in a book called Market Education by Andrew Coulson.

In England in 1862 Parliament passed legislation called the Revised Code. It allocated funds to schools in proportion to scores achieved on standardized tests. The results were devastating to the quality of English education. Mathew Arnold, the poet, was one of the inspectors for the state. He wrote of the system,

"I find in English schools in general, if I compare them with their former selves, a deadness, a slackness, and a discouragement. If I compare them with the schools of the continent I find in them a lack of intelligent life much more striking now than it was when I returned from the continent in 1859. This change is certainly to be attributed to the Payment by Results school legislation of 1862."

We should be intelligent enough to learn from history. We should be capable of devising a system that can evaluate itself honestly without forcing us into a curriculum so rigid that it stifles the teaching of anything that does not lend itself to standardized testing. We should be able to create an environment for education that will accommodate the computerís ability to tailor curricula to the individual and which will prepare the individual to utilize the capacity of the computer to provide the opportunity for life long learning.

Yet, when this style of learning has been shown to some superintendents in Vermont they have looked and asked, "But how do you know you have met the standards?" The reply has been that we have no intention of meeting standards, we intend to set them.

We have looked at a single example of how computers may change the way we teach. Even this limited example demonstrates how careful we must be in adopting a curriculum dedicated only to passing standard tests.

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Lawrence Bangs homeschooled his five, now-grown children. He is the owner of Wildridge Software in Vermont, and the creator of excellent computer learning programs. Among them, Stars N Stories, which is for learning astronomy and another, Math N Music, which is a new approach for teaching math, utilizing its connections with music. The graphics and layout of both programs are stunning! They are available through Wildridge Software, www.wildridge.com

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