Just the other day I spent a few minutes talking with my niece– a college senior– while she took a multiple choice test in an online interim Political Science course. One tiny part of my brain was concerned with ethics– is this cheating?– but the teacher in me was more concerned with trying to help her ‘talk out’ the answers. I was never good at these tests and so I was not always sure of the answers myself, even though I am very familiar with the subject.
Many questions were designed, it seemed, to fool you into going in one direction when the answer lay in another. Perhaps the purpose is to get students to to think twice before they answer. These tests, though, help to explain why learning is so undervalued in our culture. (I would add to that dynamic the cynicism that pays administrators million dollar salaries while expanding the use of adjuncts.) It’s not about learning; it’s about winning the education game.
It’s difficult, in these tests, to keep your mind on the subject; your mind keeps trying to decipher the game the teacher is playing, rather than the content. This is why these ‘how to study’ courses can be so helpful. It’s not simply that some students have problems with authority; these tests really are manipulative. I think that the only reason we don’t see more open resentment is that so many students learn to be good, or to at least accept, these games.
School, then, becomes a contest against the teacher. Is it any surprise that cheating is so common? Standardized tests are an archaic, anti-learning technology that should be phased out. We need new strategies. Instead, though, schools are too often pursuing a kinds of arms race, struggling to beat the cheaters at the testing game (Cheaters Find an Adversary in Technology). It’s a kind of decadence that has to end before any progress can be made.