HARRISBURG – As states tinker with standardized tests, they aren’t making them better. Schools desperate to improve test scores aren’t arming kids with the tools needed to succeed.

That’s the verdict of Gary Gruber, who ought to know. Gruber writes guides to help kids pass those standardized tests.

This shouldn’t just be a concern for ivory tower navel-gazers. A focus on performing well on tests, at the expense of helping kids become critical thinkers, is killing intellectual curiosity in the nation’s young people, he said.

“This may sound trivial, but this is serious,” Gruber said. “This could be the reason we don’t discover the cure for cancer.”

Pennsylvania rolled out a new version of state tests for students in third through eighth grades earlier this year.

The tests are designed to follow the state’s version of Common Core, and first-year results showed a marked drop in the number of students considered advanced or proficient in math or writing.

The results were so bad that the state got permission from the federal Department of Education to ignore this year’s scores in evaluating school performance.

The state has also revamped tests for high school students to reflect the national Common Core standards. Students who will be seniors in 2017 must pass the Keystone Exam to graduate.

Pennsylvania is one of 42 states that have adopted a form of the Common Core. Gruber said those states are on the right track since the standards address critical thinking and strategy.

The problem is the way those standards trickle down to classrooms. Too many teachers are confused about how they are supposed to adjust or simply inflexible about adopting new approaches, he said.

Gruber is widely described in the press as one of the nation’s foremost authorities on how to prepare for the SAT. He has written more than

40 books and claims he’s sold more than 7 million of them. He also authored a syndicated “Brain Teaser” feature for newspapers, for which Washington Post columnist described him as “super-genius.”

It’s not the first time we’ve been down this road, he said. In the 1960s, the country responded to a perceived need to develop mathematicians and scientists by rolling out an approach widely known as “New Math.”

The strategy flustered teachers and students alike, and the term has since become code for educational fads.

If the country doesn’t do a better job translating the Common Core and getting teachers to embrace its critical thinking goals, the effort could very well end up in the dustbin of educational history, just like new math, he said.

Current standardized tests don’t do much to help, he said.

In the late 1950s, Gruber was working with a group of students on a math problem. Half the students not only tried to solve the problem but expressed an interest in seeing if it revealed a pattern that would hold up in similar scenarios.

Decades later, while working with another group of students, Gruber presented the same problem. All focused solely on solving it.

When Gruber asked why they hadn’t expressed curiosity about the implications of the problem, the students replied that he hadn’t asked them to do that.

Gruber said he worries that we’re teaching students to be robots, not thinkers.

“It’s so disgusting,” he said. “They are trying to beat the test. It’s counter-productive to education.”

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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