Why We Need to Learn the Impractical and Why Student Tests Don’t Apply to Adults

Regular readers will know that I’m definitely not a fan of using testing to evaluate teachers–the cornerstone of what passes for educational ‘reform’–since the methods stink. So one might think I would enthusiastically support a guest blog post at The Washington Post which challenges the basic utility of what standardized tests measure (boldface mine):

A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America did something that few public servants are willing to do. He took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public….

…I asked him what he now thought about the tests he’d taken.

“I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

The more I rattle this around in my noggin, the more I fundamentally disagree.

Much of what I learned in high school (and college) has little or no practical applicability to what I do as a research biologist. The year of physics? Can’t say it does me much good regarding genomics (an aside: when I was in high school, genomics really didn’t exist). I probably don’t need 95% of the chemistry I learned. Algebra and calculus are pretty useful and trigonometry even pops its head up in weird ways, but I never learned any statistics or applied math, and that’s what I use the most, by far. And even much of the biology I learned isn’t relevant to my day-to-day research. Hell, all that time I spent in biology learning the fucking Krebs cycle… well, it’s a very nice cycle, but I don’t really need to know it for my job.

Having said that, why would I disagree with the Washington Post piece?


I know now what I want to do, but we should keep as many options open for as many students as possible. Who can say who the next theoretical mathematician will be? Or even someone who sheds some novel insight into the fucking Krebs cycle?

If the tests accurately reflect our curricular goals, and for many state tests, that’s a big if, then they should measure proficiency in areas that, for most, will ultimately be impractical. And we definitely should not be using testing to close off avenues for students–if they are forcing out or discouraging students, then we should reconsider everything we’re doing, including the tests.

But let’s not use practicality in the adult business world as the guide for student education. Like it or not, as you get older, the paths, including the ones less taken (to use a phrase), are increasingly closed off.

Let’s not rush that process.

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4 Responses to Why We Need to Learn the Impractical and Why Student Tests Don’t Apply to Adults

  1. joemac53 says:

    I told my high school students for many years that I did not know when they would use the math they were studying, but that if they didn’t know any math, they would close a lot of doors to the future. Keep those doors open as long as you can.
    A parent once asked me why I was teaching such a hard calculus course. Being a wise guy, I told them I had to teach them math so I would have more people to talk to. Got a big laugh.
    I am no fan of high-stakes test, but the one in Massachusetts has improved over the years.
    The poor guy who took the test has a lot of degrees, but no training in algebraic problem-solving. It’s not really his fault, unless he tries to cram in his own version of what is important.
    After I had been teaching physics for several years students would ask what I majored in in college and were a little surprised to hear “Math”. I told them they were not likely to have a physics teacher who majored in History (although a prof at my college had doctoral degrees in Physics and also in Philosophy).
    Besides, math (and physics) are just freakin’ cool.

  2. The issue WRT testing is not whether the skills tested are applicable to later life. The issue is whether teaching the skills exercises higher level thinking skills and habits of thought that will equip students to deal with whatever they wind up doing.

    And that’s where teacher “accountability” (IOW, blaming teachers for low test scores) fails students. Teachers whose jobs depend on their students test scores will coach kids to give correct answers, rather than trying to get them to think.

    Truly good teachers can get the kids to think while preparing them for tests, but that’s not the way it usually goes.

    “When you see ‘ribosome,’ think ‘makes protein’.”

  3. Susan says:

    I agree completely. I had a couple of excellent calculus students one year who planned on being a doctor and a lawyer. We had some great discussions in that class about how taking calculus was strengthening their ability to reason using the most complex ideas that they had encountered in their education so far.

    Alas, sometimes it was hard to get the point across to students. Especially the students who had been taught to solve equations by “moving something to the other side of the equal mark and changing the sign.” That I think is a good example of “coaching the kids to get the right answer” rather than teaching them to think about what equality means.

    Good article. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Top Ten Mad Biologist Posts for 2011 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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