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Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2000/ 8 Adar 1, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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College testing via Lego-building -- yeah, right --
FORGET THE BRAIN GAMES. Forget reading aloud to your munchkins. Forget flashcards, calculators and computers. If you want your kid to go to college, buy him Legos.

The latest craze in competence avoidance for the educationally challenged is college testing via Lego-building. That's right. After years of hearing how standardized testing cheats minorities and the disadvantaged from the higher education they so richly deserve -- and for which they're qualified despite all signs to the contrary -- educationists have come up with a new bag of tricks.

Johnny can't read, and Mary can't compute?

Not a problem. If they can build a robot out of Legos in 10 minutes, they're college material under a pilot program being tested by Colorado College and eight other schools -- Beloit, Carleton, Grinnell and Macalester colleges, and state universities Rutgers, Penn State, the University of Michigan and the University of Delaware.

The gist is this: Some children who do poorly on standardized tests have other qualities that counselors believe would make them good candidates for success in college. The Lego test and other exercises -- public speaking, conflict-resolution and personal interviews -- are designed to measure those qualities.

More or less, the Lego exercise works like this: A group of eight to 10 students is given a box of the colored blocks and shown an assembled Lego robot in another room.

Each student views the robot individually. Then, the group is given 10 minutes to try to reproduce the robot.

Evaluators rate students' performances, awarding a score between one and four. The robot isn't the end-point, apparently. Rather, the process is supposed to reveal which of the students emerges as a leader, one of the markers for projected college success. Other markers are perseverance, drive, motivation, adaptability and the ability to work well within a group.

I admit, I was never very good at Legos -- and I work alone, thanks -- but this strikes me as yet another effort to excuse incompetence under the presumption that everyone deserves a college education.

Too many exceedingly bright students have emerged from dismal backgrounds to succeed in college to support the thesis that standardized tests are unfair to the socially disadvantaged. Likewise, too many exceedingly advantaged children perform poorly on standardized tests to convince me that financial security predicts academic success.

You either can read or you can't; you either can do math or you can't. That's about as simple as it gets.

What is more likely true is that minority children who also come from economically depressed neighborhoods tend to receive inferior educations owing to a plethora of problems, not the least of which is the high turnover rate among teachers exhausted by an incompetent education system.

What good teacher can last long in a decaying neighborhood where hoodlums are tolerated; where sex, drugs and violence are daily social exercises; where children -- for whatever the reason -- have little interest in learning?

Better than Legos, why not give these students tough, clean, demanding schools with well-paid, motivated teachers? Instead of making excuses for failure to learn the material necessary for college success -- not to mention real-world performance -- why not institutionalize hard work, responsibility, accountability?

If a child can't read well enough to perform well on a standard test, how long will she last in college classes, which typically demand voluminous reading, comprehension and analytical thinking? Or will we offer special courses to Lego legacies so that they get good grades regardless of performance?

Perseverance, motivation and cooperative play are all good qualities, which should be measured and valued as markers for school performance. But those measures should be taken in kindergarten or first grade, not at the end of the game as a consolation for failure.

In the real world, we call that too little, too late.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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