Monday, August 5, 2013

Getting Testy

There's an op-ed column in the Tampa Bay Times in which Norman Augustine of the Washington post  attempts to make the case that the critics of standardized testing "fail to grasp testing's valuable role in motivating and guiding students and teachers." 
Augustine, who apparently took his high school instruction in essay writing very seriously, argues that opponents of testing offer three (count 'em, three) "basic arguments," which he serially refutes:

  • that exams detract from the larger goals of education by encouraging teachers to "teach the test."
  • that standardized tests drive educators to cheat
  • that high-stakes testing places too much pressure on students.
I'll leave it up to you, gentle reader, to determine whether his refutations of these three arguments are convincing. The point I would like to make is that the strongest case against standardized testing does not seem to have occurred to him. He has, like so many dutiful high school students before him, come up with three talking points which happen to be the ones that sprang to mind when he got started. Either it never occurred to him to ask whether there might be more, or he just cherry-picked the ones that suited his purpose and ignored the rest. Welcome to a very large club, Norman. That's how we teach students to write and think; so that's the way we should write and think. Right? Well, no, I think not.

The problem with testing is not that teachers feel obliged to teach to the test, although, in my experience, they most often do. (I taught pre-AP and AP English for years and often found myself in the position of having to make a tough call as to whether we would have time to pursue some interesting line of thought initiated by the students or allow for a project to develop around a generative idea, or whether—knowing that their performance, my performance, the department's the school's performance, the town's performance, and the state's performance would be judged by the test results—we really had to get back to preparing them for what was going to be on the test. I often found myself saying, that's really a good idea, but we have to get back to the work at hand.) Nor is the problem primarily that testing pressures create conditions where educators—knowing that their performance, the department's the school's performance, the town's performance, and the state's performance will be judged by the test results—are tempted to fudge the results. You can pick up the paper almost any day of the week and see irrefutable evidence that that is true. It's hardly surprising. It's completely predictable. But it's not the real problem. Nor is the problem of pressure. Students, teachers, parents, businesspeople: we're all under pressure of some kind all of the time. That is, more often than not, a good thing. Pressure is what makes some things more urgent than others. Part of learning to be an adult is learning how to respond to pressure. So deal with it.

No. The REAL problem with testing is that the tests that we have available are reductive in the extreme. They measure a very small subset of what it is that good teachers try to teacher and good students try to learn. They measure what is measurable. The omnipresence of multiple-choice testing as the method of choice in assessment has nothing to do with how effective the tests are. It has everything to with the fact that they are easy to administer, easy to grade, and easy to compare. And cheap. They count what can be cheaply counted. And as no less a luminary than Albert Einstein—not a very good test-taker himself, as you may remember—has pointed out, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." 

What do I really want my students to learn? I want them to learn to ask good questions. I want them to learn to be creative problem solvers. I want them to be good at face-to-face communication and collaboration. I want them to have enthusiasms. I want them to be good self-advocates. I want them to be thoughtful and reflective and compassionate. I want them to have some sense of what they value and what purposes they would like to have their life serve. I want them to read well, write well, and think well. And so on. If they manage to learn those things, then I am very confident they will be engaged, productive, lifelong learners able to master any granular subject-area content they encounter. The problem is, not one of those things is easily measurable, and certainly not by any multiple choice instrument known to man. 

Would it be possible to devise assessments that honor those educational goals? Sure. But those assessments are performance driven, project-based, interpersonal, and only really effective or fair at the moment of readiness, which may or may not be at the end of the quarter or the semester or the year. And they take time, a lot of time. They're thought- and emotion- and labor-intensive, both for the tester and the testee.  I'd like to see some of the pundits and legislators who wax so righteously indignant about falling standards volunteering more (any) of their time to participate personally in the kinds of project-based assessments discussed in books like Ron Berger's An Ethic of Excellence.

I'm not against tests per se. I'm against making tests the final measure of accomplishment. What we choose sends a message to students about what we care about. Do we really care only about what students can do on a Scantron? Is that what the American educational system now boils down to?

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