Now I See It: Standardized Testing vs Experimental Learning

Entering high school, I had a choice between two tracks in the Math department: the traditional path (Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, and Advanced Placement Calculus) or the Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP). According to our guidance counselors, IMP encouraged group work and problem-solving that emphasized critical thinking over individual memorization of mathematical skills. You started with IMP I and then moved through the following three levels, each of which integrated mathematical concepts into “real-world” and technical applications.

I chose Geometry.

What would, to Cathy Davidson (and to me, today) seem like the much more exciting option was by far the more worrying. I was more comfortable with the traditional classroom where you were evaluated on your own individual work through homework and on exams. I wasn’t alone either. IMP was widely considered by my peers as the program for those students who weren’t “smart enough” to succeed in the traditional path.

I can’t say, however, that I regret the decision I made, even if I recognize the problems with my (my peers’, my schools’, etc.) previous thinking. It wasn’t only that I was scared to break out of the traditional mode. It was more that it seemed like that class would work against me. Because Math was not the most interesting subject for me, I wanted the skills for one primary reason: testing. Not only for the more familiar testing that came with the average math classroom, but also for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). And not just MCAS, but the SAT’s. And, finally, the AP exam and college placement tests. Passing the MCAS was a graduation requirement, and scoring within the top 25% of your high school class led to free in-state tuition at state universities. Passing a certain threshold for the SATs was necessary for many universities, and the AP was crucial for the more prestigious colleges. Doing well on placement exams (along with AP credit) meant I wouldn’t have to take as many math courses at the college level.

All of these tests were built around a traditional understanding of mathematics. So, what would be the point of IMP? I didn’t see one at fourteen, and the tests certainly did not (do not) support the type of interactive, immersive learning IMP promised. As Davidson argues in Now You See It, although the job market today requires “attention to surprise, anomaly, difference, and disruption” (77), the educational system relies on standardized testing geared toward college preparation (75).

What I want to draw attention to in addition to this, however, is something beyond Davidson’s point about tests failing to consider new ways of learning among children, but how students are blamed for perceived failure. I’d like to take a look at this clip from Boy Meets World

Boy Meets World “Quiz Show” Clip (Full clip posted by KillerRhino)

This episode of Boy Meets World, “Quiz Show,” aired in 1997, still eight years before I would begin high school  (Episode Information). In the episode, Cory, Topanga, and Shawn participate in a knowledge game show that moves from testing traditionally academic knowledge to pop culture trivia.  On the one hand, I can understand Mr. Feeny’s frustration as the quiz show begins as this:

Quiz Show 1

And becomes this:

Quiz Show 2


Yet, I am more interested in how the instructor blames the students for pursuing the wrong knowledge and using technology for the wrong reasons. At the same time the students are accused of wasting their time playing Mario (a game, which I’m sure Davidson would point out, encourages collaboration in many versions), the classroom is empty of any technology. The games that they play would lead to Davidson’s call for surprise (as did the transformed game show they participated in). Feeny’s classroom, however, doesn’t suggest any technological advancement, and as far as I can recall, computers weren’t featured on the show until the characters are in college. There may have been a website published every six seconds, but at no point is there a class project encouraging students to use those resources.

Mr. Feeny goes on to say to the class, “Shame on you. You deserve what you get.” I remember seeing a rerun of this episode a few months ago, prior to reading Davidson’s work, and my initial feeling was one of guilt, being a part of the generation fairly ruthlessly criticized.

The educational system blames students for its own failings – just as the standardized tests poorly designed to evaluate student learning point blame toward students instead of reflecting their own inadequacies. It’s not surprising that Feeny’s lecture opens by lamenting students’ supposedly declining verbal and mathematical skills. More than 15 years later, the situation is remarkably similar. My sister (who is 10) has to take many more standardized tests than I did. And IMP has been discontinued at my high school.

8 thoughts on “Now I See It: Standardized Testing vs Experimental Learning”

  1. As someone who came from a private school that was organized into tiers (regular track, honors track, and AP track), the idea of your school’s now-defunct IMP track sounds—and my own bias may come out here—like a new-age pipe dream.

    While I understand that such an environment very well may teach valuable skills like critical thinking, I still think there is something to be said for traditional individual memorization. And I fully expect to be criticized for saying that and to be pointed to every point in Davidson’s text where she claims we forget those skills immediately after the test. Although, in my defense, I haven’t been in an advanced mathematics classroom in almost 5 years, yet I can still recall important skills to help my younger brother with the math courses he’s been taking at his university.

    I guess, for me, an IMP classroom makes me nervous, just like that Voyager Academy class that Davidson discusses at length. I like structure in classrooms; I like tests; I didn’t like most of my high school teachers’ and undergrad professors’ attempts at “creative projects.” And sometimes, to be honest, peer collaboration rubs me the wrong way.

    1. Chris,

      I didn’t pursue IMP for all the reasons you stated in addition to the ones in my post. I think a program like it could work, but if the assessment of skills stays the same across all disciplines, it doesn’t offer much. In terms of the skills it teaches, I imagine (but can only imagine) that the problem-solving strategies it promotes are more helpful down the line than regular math textbooks. I’ll be a bit cheeky here – the reason the math skills you can recall are important may be that they are those evaluated in just another traditional math course. Their importance seems to me to be fairly relative. I’ll be more sincere here in asking – what else have you used them for? (The tone of that sentence still looks to sarcastic written down – but I promise it’s a genuine question).

      I also don’t mean that question to suggest that traditional math classes are useless – only that looking back I feel that the IMP classes could have more practical value than AP calculus for me, even if that value is a model of a different pedagogical mode. The only function taking Calculus has had in my life is to get me out of Calculus in college. I think doing away with classes like that is a decidedly bad idea (especially since, for many fields, Calculus is absolutely crucial), but that there needs to be more alternatives (an idea complicated by practical questions of funding and staffing, I know).

      And the collaboration element also turned me away from IMP. I’ve had very few good collaborative experiences. Yet, I wonder if that’s primarily due to the general practice of having 95% student work be individual and then randomly throwing students together once or twice a year with the Tim Gunn mantra of “make it work” without the Tim Gunn advice on how to do so.


      1. Caitlin,

        I sensed no sarcasm in your questions! But thank you for being so professional about it nonetheless. You’re absolutely right, though: I don’t use the skills I mentioned in anything outside of a math courses, and these days I’m lucky I can calculate a tip without having to whip out my iPhone to use the calculator app.

        And I think you’re right for two things: one, that there should definitely be more alternatives in school, although I’m not exactly sure what those alternatives should be or look like; and two, that collaborative work so often resembles your very apt Tim Gunn metaphor! Not to mention how I was sick of always getting stuck doing everything because I was the only motivated student in the group.

  2. Caitlin and Chris,

    This was an interesting discussion about the uses of traditional vs. “outside the box” curricula in secondary math. I actually found myself bristling at the idea that there is *nothing* redeemable or useful about the less overtly “practical” or “applied” traditional math skills. While I’m with Davidson and with you, Caitlin, in thinking that we challenge our brains in new ways when we are asked to apply knowledge, I also actually think there is serious value in learning to learn in the abstract. Despite my affection for the humanities, I actually loved math from a very young age, and by the time I got to AP Calculus my junior year of high school, I found that my ability to wrap my head around these highly abstract concepts was what I was most proud of and most enjoyed about math. It didn’t have to be concrete or “real-world applicable” to be meaningful– it challenged my brain to be plastic in the opposite kind of way. And I think that exercise in abstract thinking has resonated in all kinds of ways, ways I can’t easily untangle, in the work I have done since then– even (and maybe particularly!) in English. And I totally regret not taking more math after high school… someday I’m going to get motivated and get back on that train with Coursera or something!


    1. Kiley,

      I do agree with you – and that was part of the reason why I was trying to choose words carefully in my reply to Chris. I find the “this has no point” argument kind of tiresome, though I know I levied it at various topics throughout high school. I enjoyed AP Stats and Calc in high school (I didn’t have to take either, but chose to – even if that decision was based partially on getting AP credit), and I generally see value in both (all) modes of education. I also think that if programs like IMP were applied more broadly, there could be really interesting combinations of abstract mathematical principles and collaborative work. Or gaming, or something beyond the teacher-textbook-student model. To be fair, I did find it necessary to work in groups at some points during Calculus as the problems sometimes required collective brain power. I don’t know that I can trace any influence to other academic interests of mine, but who knows?

  3. Caitlin,

    Your post speaks straight to my heart! My second daughter was the artsy one, interested in writing and drama and voice. So when she was asked to choose tracks in math, her mom and I said, “Sure, IMP.” Little did we know that this was the equivalent of consigning her to the dummies room. It sounded good to us, and to Mo.

    Well, it has all turned out okay, so far. She got into Oberlin, graduated, and has had some plays produced by local theater companies. But what your post suggests to me is—forget about digital media. what really counts are the expectations of upper-middle-class parents (and teachers and school principals and superintendents). The point of learning calculus is that only a certain subset of kids learn calculus. If it were actually useful, and everybody learned it, we’d have to think of some other advanced course to enforce the distinction between our kids and everybody else’s.


    1. Joe,

      I think this turn to a discussion of class is an important one to make. One section of Davidson’s text that hasn’t come up at length in the posts this week is her discussion of “Middleton Elementary” (93-96). She speaks earlier in the text as to how US standardized testing privileges white Americans, but her discussion about the school’s required exams from NCLB have placed undue pressure on the children of Latin American immigrants in language acquisition.

      Davidson writes, “By what logic would failing a test in a language other than the one spoken in your home constitute a failure for you as well as for your teachers, your classmates, and your entire school?” (94).

      I think in this push toward “standards” – ostensibly a leveling of education across the US – more specific and concerning lines are being drawn among students and families. With long-term effects as well – considering the necessity of high scores for college and scholarships (college being far too expensive without significant financial aid).

  4. Caitlin,

    Your post reminds me of a discussion that I’ve had in several other classes about what texts to teach in literature classes. Ultimately the debate falls down to “teach the canon” or “teach the margins.” Obviously, both have their benefits. And I’m sure that most of us, in an idealized world, would prefer to teach the margins. But if we do this, are we not doing our students a disservice? Without canonical knowledge, they will be unprepared for future academic endeavors—should they decide to stay in literature.

    I guess what I’m saying is that your post speaks to the larger problem of one teacher (or even school’s) ability to change curriculum when that class/school exists within a larger structure. I think a number of people have touched on this in other posts, but it seems to me that the only real way to change education is from the top down.

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