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?