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There’s no SAT in Judaism

By Joel M. Hoffman

I saw a 7th grader studying for a test on the clouds. She had made herself a chart with the various kinds of clouds — cirrus, cumulonimbus, etc. — on the left side of a piece of paper, and qualities such as “appearance,” “size,” “height,” and “rain potential” across the top. She had almost finished filling out her chart when I saw her.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Studying for a test tomorrow,” she answered.

“On what?”

“On the clouds.”

“Are you ready? Are you going to pass?”

“Yeah!” she said with more than a little attitude, as though the answer were obvious. Of course she was ready. She was an A student and she was going to get an A on the cloud test. She had mastered the material and she knew all about the clouds.

I looked out the window, pointed, and asked her a question: “What kind of clouds are those?”

“How should I know!?” she replied.


The student thought she had learned all about the clouds. I’m sure she passed the test the next day, so her teacher thought she had learned all about the clouds. Eventually, her parents will think their daughter learned all about the clouds. And the school principal will look at the average test score in the class and conclude that the school is doing a pretty good job teaching about the clouds.

The only problem is that even this A-student didn’t really learn anything about the clouds. She had learned to pass a test on the clouds, but she skipped over the part of actually learning about the clouds themselves.

And that’s the problem with tests. While they can (sometimes) measure what people know, they’re only effective when students don’t study for them. Used incorrectly, though, tests can actually sabotage learning.

Vocabulary tests demonstrate the point.

Make a list of 500 random English words, ask students which ones they know, and you can get a pretty good sense of how many words in total the test-takers know. (The average American high-school student knows about 80,000.) But the system only works if the words are random and if the students don’t study the list ahead of time. It’s the random nature of the list and the proviso that the students don’t study for the test that make the test a good guide to the vocabulary level of the students.

The vocabulary section of the SAT — built around a representative list of English words — is supposed to work this way. But it doesn’t, because the list of test words was made available, so most students study the list instead of expanding their vocabulary, wrongly thinking that there is something magical about the particular words that happen to appear on the test. As students study the list of SAT words, they skew the results of the SAT, and, worse, misunderstand the very nature of their education.

And even worse than that, teachers start thinking that the SAT words are the important words, and they teach for the test, taking up class time and homework time with what is essentially the useless study of random words. The whole process deprives the students of the very education that the SAT is supposed to measure.

We don’t want this to happen in Religious School. We don’t want students to confuse knowledge with how we measure knowledge, and we don’t want them to confuse accomplishment with how we measure accomplishment. Nor do we want their parents or their teachers mixing these things up.

But in synagogues across the country, people have started to think of bar/bat mitzvah as the test toward which the school should be teaching. Of course it’s not, but the more perception becomes reality — the more students and parents and teachers demand that Religious School serve only as preparation for bat/bat mitzvah — the less the school will be able to teach about Hebrew and Judaism.

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with a bunch of students who can do marvelously at their b’nei mitzvah, but — like the girl who passed a test on clouds without knowing anything about them — the b’nei mitzvah students won’t have accomplished anything of value on their Jewish path of learning.

The bar/bat mitzvah is not the SAT of Judaism. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

Categories: education
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