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How fair are standardized tests?

Children learn from seeing different cultures and ways of living.
Children learn from seeing different cultures and ways of living.Nancy Sathre-Vogel

“Hey Mom, what’s a binder? My teacher says I need one.”

One of the best parts of travel is seeing wildlife around the world
One of the best parts of travel is seeing wildlife around the worldNancy Sathre-Vogel

I never saw that one coming…

My sons have had so many life experiences. They’ve cycled with buffalo and camped in snow. They’ve danced at Carnival and made a pilgrimage to a holy site. They’ve flown over the Nazca Lines and seen conehead skulls and walked on floating islands and climbed Mayan pyramids. They’ve eaten asado and lomo saltado and tried mate.

But they didn’t know what a binder was. And they had no idea that in junior high they would move from teacher to teacher rather than staying in one homeroom most of the day. It’s been fun watching a whole new world emerge before them.

The boys have now attended school two weeks since riding their bikes the length of the Americas. The first thing did was take the ISAT standardized tests.

This has gotten me thinking about those standardized tests and I’m more convinced than ever that they’re unfair. I remember giving one of those tests to my first graders in Ethiopia many, many years ago and I actually marked down which of the questions I figured my students may not be able to understand due to lack of one particular life experience – and at the end of the test I had marked over 50% of the questions.

Although I don’t remember most of the questions any more, I know one of them related to a fireplace. You know – like the fireplace inset into a wall and the chimney goes up behind the wall to take the smoke outside? The kind of fireplaces we have in many houses here in America? The kind that you would never see in most places in Africa?

I remember thinking that my students – regardless of how bright they were – were at a tremendous disadvantage simply because of where they grew up. They grew up with fires for cooking, but had never seen a standard American fireplace. Did that make them less smart? Should they be penalized on the test for that?

And now I’m looking at that very same idea with my own boys. If they had taken the ISAT three weeks ago and if there had been a question on it about a binder, they would have been clueless. Such a simple thing – and one that took all of about ten seconds to explain – but it would have totally thrown them a few days ago.

How often do we do that to kids? We assume they know something – like knowing that junior high kids change classrooms every period? Or knowing what a binder is? Or a fireplace?

And yet we require kids to take standardized tests and base important decisions on them.

I remember visiting my brother in the refugee camp in Malawi he worked at. “So,” I asked him, “these people walk for a day or ten days or a hundred days to get here. They walk through the gate of the refugee camp, and then what? What happens to them?”

“We assign them a plot of land and they go build a house,” he replied.

“But what if they don’t know how to build a house?” I asked, knowing I would have no clue how to build a house if I had to.

“Everyone here knows how to build a house,” he told me. “It’s unthinkable that they wouldn’t.”

Am I stupid for not knowing how to build a house? Or is it just that my life experiences haven’t included that particular set of skills? Are my boys clueless about life because they don’t know how your typical American kid goes about their daily routine at school? Or is it just that their life experiences have included other things besides that? Is it really fair that all kids should be given the same questions regardless of their life experiences?

OK, OK, the teacher in me hates this testing. I really, really hate this testing and think it’s ridiculous. My boys don’t mind it – it’s actually quite fun for them since it’s easy and they score high – so I won’t argue about them having to take it. But I feel badly for the other kids – those kids who, for one reason or another, struggle with it. I just don’t think it’s fair.

And I hope my sons don’t end up penalized for having had the experiences they’ve had rather than the ones their classmates have.

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