I’m worried that we’re no longer teaching students how to think critically or to write well.

Everything I’m hearing from teachers, students and parents suggests that, with the standardized testing epidemic sweeping through our nation’s public schools, what we’re teaching the next generation is how to fill in the blanks and work from templates.

Success, innovation and productivity rarely rely on answers derived from a multiple-choice format. Think about it for a minute: Is it ever the good guys who ask, “Do you want: a) Your money? b) Your life?”

We’re producing answer-givers when what we need are problem-solvers. The most important question a child asks of his or her teacher shouldn’t be, “Is this going to be on the test?”

American students are forfeiting creativity, inspiration and contextual understanding in order to do better on high-stakes exams. It’s a meretricious trade.

If students learn exclusively what can be measured, what can’t be measured will no longer be taught.


Think writing. Think critical thinking. Think music, art, public speaking. Think citizenship.

I fear the next generation of American students will end up like those impaired souls on reality television who think that Mozart was a writer, that “arugula” is what’s being chanted in the background of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and that “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is from the U.S. Constitution.

Rigorous independent schools, which have always been quite literally the playgrounds of the privileged, know this. They recognize the artisanal nature of teaching. Unfettered by the common or the core, their students reach for the extraordinary and the cutting edge. Their instructors are encouraged to have students dig deep, go far and come up with their own answers.

Don’t public school students also deserve to have their curiosity inspired instead of managed?

If the next generation of public school students fails, in part it will be because we made them spend 12 years playing a scholastic version of “Mad Libs,” throwing random words into the air in the hope that some will land in an appropriate spot. As Les Perelman — the former director of undergraduate writing at MIT— famously put it: “You’re getting teachers to train students to be bad writers.”

It’s called high-stakes testing, by the way, because, like gambling, it appears to offer a fair shot at winning while the odds remain against those who come in with their pockets nearly empty.


No coach, no test prep, no tutors, no money to keep retaking the test, no small, individualized classes? No luck.

Yet fans of fanatical testing argue that only what is measured can be improved; it’s like Weight Watchers for the mind. There are a lot of scales, but there’s no accounting for taste.

The real point is this: Can you measure education? Does it come in ounces, in diplomas, in the number of assessments per semester, in density, in money earned after graduation or in eureka moments?

And who decides?

This is not a multiple-choice question. You need to provide a defense of your central argument and an innovative conclusion.

As they are taught now, students have bits and pieces of information but no internalized means permitting them to comprehend or discover patterns. True, they will know how to look up facts and they’ll be able to accumulate data. This is limiting. They’ll think they only need to know enough geography to use the navigation system in their car.


In truth, they’ll need a world map.

Our students — our children — should be able to make themselves understood in the global community and not just take a stab at vocabulary words. Neither a Frommer’s travel guide nor “An Idiot’s Guide to the Future” will help.

Those who test well sometimes can’t articulate their own ideas; those who communicate with originality and grace sometimes can’t fill in the right bubble.

We know it’s essential to read between the lines to get a job and to keep one. Those who can read the writing on the wall only when it has a single, concrete meaning will be unable to survive in the increasingly competitive international economy.

There are no short cuts to learning. If we don’t teach our students to write well, our nation’s history will soon be written by others.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her www.ginabarreca.com. This column was distributed by MCT Information Services.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.