Red Tape

The American education system is broken, and ineffective policy makers are trying to fix it by adding more and more red tape. The intention is to raise the quality of education, but the result is a hurdle of hoops for both students and teachers to jump through. Standardized testing in schools, being the biggest punching bag, continues to meet wide opposition from teachers and parents alike. Being one to experience the American educational bureaucracy, I can say that they are ineffective and a waste of time.

There are so many reasons why standardized testing is the wrong measure of a person’s aptitude and potential. The CSET (California Subject Examinations for Teachers), a series of 3-5 exams that tests a candidate’s content knowledge. Each exam requires 1.5-2 months of study, so it takes about 5-10 months to tackle to finish the entire exam, assuming they pass on the first try (and many candidates don’t). This giant red tape hopes to bar “disqualified” teachers from walking into a classroom.

Does passing the CSET ensure a candidate’s aptitude and potential? Well, CSET’s expectations are very high: a pass is a 73% score. I have always been a good student, but I have never studied as hard as I do now for the CSET. My aptitude in math definitely heightened. But like any other time-pressured tests, it is also a testament to a person’s time management skill, multiple choice answering strategy, understanding what the test makers are looking for, and ability to find good study sources prior to test date. As for a candidate’s potential? I surely hope this is not the purpose of these tests, because 109 (or more) questions on a computer screen cannot begin to evaluate the elements that make for a great teacher.

Most of us can go on about the negative aspects. For all the reasons above and more, I wish the CSET existed in a different format, and not one where you must give your fingerprints before and after a washroom break like a prisoner. However, I have positive takeaways from this arduous journey, and the lessons I learned will make me a better teacher.

Remember what it’s like to be a student.

CSET has the humbling ability to put teacher candidates in the position of a student. It helps us remember what it was like to learn something for the first time. How frustrating or confusing it can be. We have to appreciate that our students will be seeing the material for the first time, and that the content can be counterintuitive. Their frustration or even disinterest is understandable. We can show them, through our personal experiences, the tricks we used to overcome the learning curve.

New-found appreciation for the content.

The CSET reminded me that knowledge is vast and limitless; there is no possible way to finish digging in the subject field we are about to teach. Some things tested on the CSET will never appear on the state curriculum, which means it is potentially not part of our job. But as I worked through a few esoteric math theorems, I began to appreciate how beautiful and mind-blowing mathematics is. It is our sense of wonder and endless curiosity that will spark our students’ interest. So, if you really love teaching, you should first love learning.

Real learning is not a time-pressured test.

Experiencing first-handedly the dissatisfaction of learning to meet the requirements of a standardized test, I will actively ensure my students will not learn like this. The time pressure on tests encourages fast work over good work. It is absurd as many great successes come from long hours of work that had been tried and revised, whether it is a well-written book, a scientific discovery, or an impactful business project.

Moreover, standardized tests favour questions that can be solved by only one method, so that test takers would arrive at an answer given as a multiple choice, and to eliminate any complaints regarding ambiguity, etc. Quoting Dead Poets Society (probably my favourite movie), John Keating says, “I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.” Standardized tests, as are all forms of ineffective assessments, are about learning to think like the test makers.

Red tape, thank you for the humbling but mostly unnecessary experience thus far. The things I learned will prepare myself and my future colleagues to go beyond bandage fixes for American children.