I remember the first time I ever heard the question. It was during my first or second week of high school, and in one of my classes someone asked, “Is this going to be on the test?” I was sitting in my freshman science class and my first thought was, “Why would it matter?”
My education before high school was Montessori, where my days were a mix of lessons from my teacher, or guide, and the work I wanted to do. There were no tests, or even grades. Instead of learning a certain curriculum or set of standards, I learned about subjects that were of interest to me.
I was excited to reach high school. I was excited for homework, and most of all, I was excited for grades. At the time they seemed novel to me. But soon the glitter wore off. Grades weren’t fun or exciting. They were worrying.
When I started high school I resolved that I wouldn’t obsess over grades. I knew they were important for getting into college, but I figured that if I just did my best and tried to learn for the sake of learning, I wouldn’t have to worry. This worked for most of freshman year. The classes were easy, and at times, brutally boring. Taking nine classes wasn’t hard and most of my stress came from my participation in numerous extracurricular activities.
My school has an atmosphere of academic competitiveness. As one of the few IB schools in the city, we have a reputation for academic rigor. This has its advantages. No one is bullied for being smart, or a nerd. But that also creates a competitive culture of academic one-upmanship. I have heard conversations where my classmates attempt to outdo each other with how few hours of sleep they got the past night. Other talents, even more traditional pursuits such as sports, are undervalued. For most students, our world revolves around maintaining the perfect GPA and getting into the college of our dreams.
Slowly, I felt myself being sucked into this vortex of grades and college applications. I have one friend who, every time she decides to do something, first asks herself, “Would this look good on my college application?”
When teachers start teaching to the test and students start learning to the test, something critical is lost. One of the biggest compliments that I have received in the past two years is my ability to solve problems by thinking about solutions from different angles. When teachers teach to a test, we lose the opportunity to explore for ourselves. We teach them that there is a single correct answer and that there is only one way reach a solution. We disable the part of their minds that wonders and asks questions. I have to know how something works. I am not content with someone just telling me what to do. In Montessori, there were so many things that we could do with the information we learned.
Instead of focusing on the end goal, like a grade or a test, Montessori focuses on the work that kids do to reach the goal. I am able to solve problems in a new way because Montessori has taught me to think outside the box, and to always do my best. It didn’t matter what I did as long as my teachers and I felt that I was doing my best, with the understanding that the best looks different for everyone. I believe that kids want to learn, and that given the right tools, will far surpass all expectations. Instead of setting up markers for where all students should be and implementing standardized tests that don’t measure problem solving, we need to instill a culture where challenges are valued.
I recently heard of a study where the researchers had kids from China and from the US work on a math problem. What these kids didn’t know was that the problem was impossible to solve. On average the American students worked for under a minute on the problem, while the Chinese students worked for the entire hour and the experimenters had to stop them because the test was over. In the US, struggle is not something that is highly valued. Instead we value intelligence, and see struggle as an indicator that someone is stupid because school should come easily to a smart person. I have had times where I was terrified to read out loud because I was afraid people would laugh at me when I mispronounced words.
This year, one of my classes has been especially challenging for me. The teacher is known for breaking people’s perfect GPAs. But the paradox is this: he has often talked in class about how grades don’t matter and he wishes that he didn’t have to give grades. But he grades so hard that all of my focus has been put on grades in his class instead of becoming a better writer. Instead of focusing on how I can improve my writing, I have shifted to thinking about how I can change my writing so that it will be what he wants and my grade will improve. Instead of creating a culture around learning, he has created a culture around grades.
Now back to that question: “Will this be on the test?” When instructors teach us that the result is the most important product of an experience, they aren’t helping us. As people grow up, there isn’t going to be someone telling them the bare minimum they need to do to succeed. Learning doesn’t stop when children graduate from school, which is fortunate because the knowledge that we gain in high school only skims the surface of what we have the potential to learn. Teaching to the test gives students the skills that they need to succeed on a standardized test. But teaching a love of learning gives students the tools to pursue learning for the rest of their lives.
Many parents with children in Montessori worry that their kids are missing something by not getting tests. The opposite is true. By not worrying about tests or grades these children are gaining a love of learning, something that will stay with them long after their knowledge of calculus fades and they no longer remember the different parts of a cell.
Kate is a Childpeace Montessori and Metro Montessori Middle School Alumni who is currently attending High School in Portland, OR. This essay won the Gold Key scholastic writing award and is now being considered at the nationals.