Your life is not a scantron sheet

Last week I listened in on the online seminar by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the writers of Academically Adrift and Aspiring Adults Adrift. After reading Excellent sheep by William Deresiewicz, these books are a breath of sensibility. While Excellent Sheep is entertaining, it lacks the data driven conclusions Arum and Roksa are able to use. It was encouraging to hear, that academic rigor pays off in critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that are carried out to work life. But the lack of rigor in undergraduate education largely makes it a privilege of few. Educators are at the key positions to make academic rigor everyone’s right. The university as an institution should wholeheartedly support this.



Changes in assessment are one aspect we can change along with connecting education to life again. I don’t know how Scranton based systems would support this kind of rigor. I first encountered these mysterious coloring sheets as an exchange student and again when preparing to take the GRE. I did not learn anything from those exams unlike essay based exams I was used to.

Filling ones life like a Scantron sheet with shades of gray within strict lines is not an option anymore. Information is available to almost everyone with an internet connection. Possessing that same data inside ones head in pretty packages is nothing special or even useful. It is the creative application and the potential for going beyond what we already know, which are valuable. Changing the culture of institutions to favor rigor and offer more learners the privilege of understanding and thinking a better future, should be our priority in education.



4 thoughts on “Your life is not a scantron sheet

  1. Claudia

    First, I wanted to let you know that I am really enjoying reading your blog. Thanks so much for participating in #ccourses!

    I worked on developing an arts integrated curriculum in Florida for youth in grades 3rd-5th. Florida, like many states had state-wide assessment tools, however the FCAT, which was “required” in public schools was linked purportedly to rigorous grade level expectations (Sunshine State Standards). The test came to be used as a tool to “grade” schools and of course students. Youth could be held back if they did not perform well, but they carried the stigma of potentially contributing to a lower graded school if they didn’t do their part. I dropped in classrooms frequently, and at times 3rd graders would be so anxious that they would they would routinely throw up and exhibit other signs of stress. I would be very curious to find out what the impact has been on their college life (youth in 3rd grade in 2002 would be about Juniors in college now). The message these children in elementary school were being imprinted with was that the only thing that mattered was passing the test. I know the messaging was persistent through the end of High School. The development of the the art program I was working on lasted three years and during that period any type of creative teaching instructors had been able to squeeze in came under siege until the curriculum was so controlled and aligned with the test goals that it became impossible to continue working with the schools.

    I agree you the “scantron” or “teaching to the test” approach begins to undermine the foundation required to understand one own’s learning style, strengths, the value of failure, and so many other fundamental skills needed in college. This is compounded now, because the internet has forever changed the way we teach, learn, and assess, not just in K-12 but in the whole formal school ecosystem, including college and I would argue professional preparation programs. In today’s Connected Courses webinar (10/23/14 -Gardner and Rheingold, In conversation w/Jon Udell), Jon stated that one of the cultural barriers in higher education’s understanding and engagement with the concept of open learning is the question of assessment and evaluation. I would add that the cultural barrier in K-12 education is also how we assess and evaluate students.

    I have also seen though the power of youth to creatively pursue their own interests despite the educational testing climate. Luckily learning is all around us and and youth engage in subversive learning practices (most likely unbeknownst to them) that are teaching them what “real” on-your-own learning might be like. The web/internet has created these opportunities for these more creative possibilities to emerge. I think we are also seeing the importance of face-to-face relationships as formatives in all stages of learning. Clearly the conversation is incredibly nuanced, the sad story on testing in Florida is just one part of it, the resiliency of learners, the socio-economic group, ethnic background and so many other factors come to make the issue of assessment so incredibly complicated.

    I have scheduled a conversation with a career counselor in higher ed. This person works with young adults at a university as well a community college. I am really curious to hear his perspective on what learning looks like when young adults are thinking about navigating their schooling as well as figuring out the “last mile” (the space between school and how they end up figuring out how to figure out a livelihood).

    Thanks for recommending Excellent Sheep, I’m looking forward to checking that out.

    1. mari Post author

      Thank you for commenting and reading the blog! And even bigger THANK YOU for sharing your experiences and observations on standardized testing like FCAT. As an outsider regarding this practice I am amazed that this kind of torture of children as early as 3rd grade is even allowed. I feel thankful for not having that kind of pressure put on me as a child. Making 3rd graders responsible for the school’s financial situation seems plain irresponsible.

      It would indeed be interesting to study how these testing practices have affected future college success and mapping of ones life. Are there possible control groups in US, that have not been exposed to this sort of testing in 2002? Maybe in Waldorf schools or other private schools? Of course in that case the pedagogical approaches and difference in student backgrounds in these schools could make the comparisons difficult.

      I am looking forward to hearing (reading? observing? what ever is the correct term for online information sharing) about your meeting with the higher ed career counselor.

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