Are you suffering like a fifth grader?

May 15, 2008

John Green offers a classroom-eye view of a popular prime-time quiz show.

EACH WEEK, more than 5 million households tune into Fox's game show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? where, for a million dollars, contestants attempt to answer 10 questions ranging from first-grade science to fifth-grade history.

The hokey send-up feels warm and fuzzy on the surface, as host Jeff Foxworthy good-naturedly ribs sweating contestants before ultimately making each failure admit, "I am not smarter than a fifth grader."

But it is the awful truth that this show resembles America's schools more closely than we are comfortable to admit. The reason no adult has yet been able to answer 10 questions is because they pertain to the kind of droll and irrelevant facts we cram down our kids' throats in real life.

Take this recent one for example: "True or False: There are no species of fish that are immune to the poison of a sea anemone."

Mind you, this is considered a second-grade science standard. Every second grader in America is expected to know this. Why? How does that benefit a young child any more than just showing him or her how to look it up in an encyclopedia?

Review: Television

Are You Smarter than a Third Grader? Thursdays at 8 p.m. EDT on Fox.

Are You Smarter is so difficult for adults because none of us have ever had much use for sea anemones beyond the aquatic life test we took once back in grade school. (The answer is false, by the way. Feel smarter?)

The similarities (and the pain) don't end there. Like the show's premise itself, each spring, public school students go through the ordeal of federally mandated high-stakes testing, starting as early as second grade.

For hours on end, students hunker down to answer hundreds of deeply vexing multiple-choice questions meant to assess their language arts, mathematics, science and social studies knowledge. (How one tests writing ability on a multiple-choice test is a mystery.)

Any teacher can tell you that it's not just the youngsters who suffer from testing anxiety. The outcomes of these tests can determine hefty economic and political sanctions for underperforming schools. Physical education and art programs are gutted. Veteran teachers are forcibly replaced. Curriculum decisions are made at the district level instead of by classroom teachers. The list goes on.

Testing proponents are fond of the old maxim that "students will rise to the level of expectations." They claim that high-stakes tests are "raising standards," "maintaining accountability" and keeping instruction "rigorous." They say that a test does more for a classroom than adequate funding would.

Yet the punitive nature of these tests leads school districts to undertake increasingly desperate measures, such as letting the tests drive instruction to the point that there's precious little space left in the school year for "untestable" concepts. But who needs problem solving, conflict resolution or a child's simple pleasure in learning if these things don't raise test scores?

And, of course, most high-stakes tests are designed, marketed and scored by private companies. Conveniently, these same companies also sell full-year test preparation material often adopted by desperate school districts facing state takeover due to low scores.

In the end, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? gets too close to the truth for comfort. Intelligence is presented as the ability to learn and retain useless facts. High-stakes test have more to do with money than genuine assessment. And learners are made to be humiliated for failure rather than celebrated for achievements.

We can always change the channel or turn off the television. But our children don't have that choice. They deserve much, much better.

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