Beyond the midterms: Helping students overcome the impact of No Child Left Behind

Students sit for a university entrance examination at a lecture hall in the Andalusian capital of Seville, southern Spain, June 16, 2015. Students in Spain must pass the exam after completing secondary school in order to gain access to university.  REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo - GF10000129149

The midterms are behind us. No, not the elections, but the midterm exams that have been a staple of college syllabi for decades. That’s when students sharpen their virtual pencils, review the yellow highlights in articles and books they’ve read, and attempt to offer cogent, well-written, analytical, and targeted essays.

Each of us has been teaching and grading undergraduates for more than 35 years. We each use a structure for midterm exams in which we distribute a series of questions well in advance of the test day. Students are told that the test will include a subset of these questions. No surprises. This should be comforting, because with adequate preparation, everyone can get a good grade.

We have been using this midterm format for decades. In the past few years, however, something has seemed dramatically different. When they spoke in class, our students were just as knowledgeable as their counterparts a decade ago—perhaps even more so. But the mere thought of a written exam created palpable fear in our classrooms.

Students told us that even with lead time, the task of defending a thesis developed from several sources and numerous class discussions was a herculean challenge. And for good reason: According to the most recent nationwide assessment of American high school seniors’ writing skills, in 2011, only one in four can construct an essay that is coherent and well-structured, with ideas presented clearly, logically, and effectively. Writing had been periodically assessed prior to 2011; the proportion of 17-year-olds classified as “proficient” had not significantly improved since 1998. This year, ACT scores showed similar stagnancy. Indeed, students did worse on all college-ready benchmarks, including measures of reading, writing, math, and science.

International comparisons reveal that American students are not as strong as others at defending arguments or critically evaluating a text. Their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores in critical reading hover around the international average, placing the U.S. 24th among participating countries—behind Singapore, Canada, Slovenia, and the U.K. American students perform at PISA’s level three competency, where readers can: “recognize the relationship between several pieces of information…integrate several parts of a text to identify the main idea…take into account many features in comparing, contrasting, or categorizing…and reflect on a text in relation to familiar everyday knowledge.” However, they have difficulty when asked to “use formal or public knowledge to hypothesize about or critically evaluate a text.” The 2018 version of the test intends to ask whether students can go beyond retrieving the facts to evaluating the veracity of the texts, and integrating and synthesizing information in ways that allow new ideas to surface. Our prediction is that American students will fare poorly on this assessment.

When we asked colleagues across the country if they too had noted that their students had trouble writing, they uniformly said, “yes.” One professor, from a high-ranking state university, told us that this semester she deviated from her syllabus to take two full days to review the idea of a topic sentence and to help her students better understand how to marshal evidence to support the claims made in their statements. Another, from a highly ranked private college, wrote in a recent Facebook post that he took time out of his class to explain how to write, noting that his students had no idea what they did not know.

What is going on? Why are today’s college juniors so ill-prepared for essay exams?

Here’s a thought: Today’s juniors in college are the first cohort of students who spent their entire public education under the educational reform law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

In January of 2002, No Child Left Behind became the law of the land. Signed by George W. Bush, and with rare bipartisan support, the law offered a fresh and well-intended response to our failing education system. Americans had been warned in 1975 that we were a “Nation at Risk” and that the demise of our public schools was akin to an “act of war.” Something had to be done. NCLB created sweeping reforms that would leave an indelible mark on teachers and students alike. It promised to refashion education, with a sharp focus on reading and mathematics and little time for extras like social studies, physical education, music, or recess. And it would elevate the need for accountability by testing students regularly and publicizing schools’ performance.

We agree that children are likely to learn more when they are tested on their knowledge–hence our own midterm exams. Scientific research strongly suggests that testing helps students learn. Yet, for this to be the case, it is important to give the right kind of tests. Those adopted by the states in response to NCLB were largely fill-in-the-blank, one-right-answer tests that never asked students to defend a position or to find different pathways to come to a defensible conclusion. In fact, many contend that NCLB, and to some extent the testing craze that has continued under the implementation of the Common Core, is the antithesis of the active learning approach that has been endorsed repeatedly by those who study the science of learning. A flurry of books raised these concerns in the hope that education would become more than teaching to the test. That was largely not to be.

And so, we college professors have inherited a cohort of students whose writing skills have left them behind students in other parts of the developed world. The business community requires that America have a modern workforce equipped with 21st century skills like collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creative innovation. But America’s students are being trained to parrot answers in a fashion that allows them—and their schools—to thrive in the NCLB culture.

Our students are, not surprisingly, very good at memorizing and regurgitating small bits of information—as far as we can discern, they are better at this than past cohorts. But that skill won’t be enough to succeed in the workplace of the future. In order for that to happen, our elementary and secondary schools need to make sure that students learn how to think. While teaching facts and rules are critical, sheer memorization is no longer as important as it once was. Students can access facts at their fingertips, retrieving millions of hits in fractions of a second. We must teach our students how to think critically about these facts and write in a way that reflects this skill. Only then will they be ready for the college classrooms of today and the workplaces of tomorrow.