Outrage at banning spelling tests
J. Martin Rochester, Curators' Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is our guest columnist. He is a close student of the evolution of American education practices, and often warns of the deterioration of standards.
By J. Martin Rochester
The documentary “Waiting for Superman,” is yet another call for K-12 school reform aimed at closing the gap between academic achievers and non-achievers and promoting what an assistant superintendent in my school district once oxymoronically labeled “mass excellence.”
The problem is that school reformers are not really serious about raising the bar. After all, they continue to dumb-down education – adopting the slogan from the Chris Farley movie Tommy Boy, “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Lower the Standard” – while claiming to be smarting up. How one can do higher-order thinking in math, social studies, or any other discipline while clueless about lower-order knowledge and skills remains a mystery to those of us who are not in tune with the latest best practices in K-12.
The latest example of dumbing-down while pretending to be smarting up is the trend toward eliminating spelling tests. The evidence I report here comes from a couple local school districts in the St. Louis area. (Stay tuned for this development in your own district if it has not already occurred.) In a September 18 St Louis Post-Dispatch article by Aisha Sultan, “Coming to the Defense of Spelling Tests,” the writer notes that two of the largest, best school districts in Missouri – Parkway and Rockwood – “have completely phased out spelling tests from their elementary school language arts curricula.”
Asked by astounded parents how this could be so, the Parkway coordinator for elementary communication arts replied that “we were developing a lot of Friday morning spellers.” Likewise, the Rockwood coordinator said “we’re really trying to work on self-regulation,” that is, getting children to develop their own strategies for becoming good spellers.
The districts say they will continue to teach lessons about spelling and may even hold students accountable for spelling certain words correctly, but spelling is a skill that will be embedded in student writing routines. The bottom line is that educators say spelling tests are not authentic assessments.
On the surface this sounds reasonable, but let’s understand what is actually going on:
1. Many kids cannot spell (due to dyslexia, or laziness because they do not read, or because they are just plain stupid, or whatever), and it is true that no amount of spelling tests are going to get them to spell. But many kids can spell or at least could spell, and spelling tests undoubtedly work to help many of the latter through the important function they perform in terms of drill, reinforcement, and motivation to learn to spell.
It certainly worked for me in my own schooling! Am I alone? Any number of experts have pointed out the utility of drill and practice as a pedagogical method, most recently those cited in the September 19th New York Times Sunday Magazine article “Drill, Baby, Drill.”
However, given the reigning orthodoxy in K-12, since some kids cannot do well on spelling tests, then no kids should be allowed to take spelling tests. It is about self-esteem, avoiding failure, some learning styles (e.g., inability to memorize) not being served by such tests, etc., but is rationalized as “inauthentic assessment” in the pretentious jargon of the profession.
I do not give a darn about authentic/schmentic assessment. Use whatever assessments you want, but at the end of the day I want to see progress. Show me that “authentic” assessments do anything to improve spelling. You can bet that the educators behind this fad will not be able to demonstrate such. I spoke to a Parkway high school English teacher who shared my skepticism. So the question remains, what harm do spelling tests do that they need to be banned?
This is just another case of K-12 progressive educators devaluing the basics, putting down spelling tests (because in truth they don’t care if kids can spell) just as they put down computation skills (because they don’t care if kids have automaticity with math facts), rationalizing all the while that schools should focus on developing (sniff, sniff) “higher order skills.”
Part of this is ego on the part of K-8 educators – they now consider it beneath them as “professionals” to get their hands dirty administering spelling tests (and multiplication table exercises) – but mostly it is something more damning : it is not so much that the reformers don’t care about these skills but rather they do not have enough faith in kids to succeed at mastering them. The dark secret the reformers will not admit is that the basics are hard and they have thrown in the towel on things like spelling.
This is what is going on in Parkway and Rockwood, and throughout much of the country. The banning of spelling tests is a metaphor for a much larger phenomenon. The bottom – the lowest achievers – are now setting the standard and defining school routines.
At the same time, the reformers claim every kid is a potential genius – Superman – even if they cannot spell “its” vs. “it’s,” “their” vs. “there,” or “Superman” vs. “Souperman.” In our pursuit of mass excellence, we continue to throw the baby out with the bathwater, abandoning traditional if imperfect practices in favor of new unproven ones. Meanwhile, it takes a layperson to point out what PLCs (“professional learning communities”) seem unable to grasp – in the words of the Post-Dispatch writer and parent, “killing the weekly spelling test is more likely to worsen the problem than improve it.”
| October 31, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: J. Martin Rochester, better to learn to spell naturally while writing, spelling tests banned, this means dumbing down English classes.
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