Education is for…passing tests

I asked my son if there was anything unique or interesting about school today (I admit I feel like the Dad in the old Crackerjack Commercial).  He said, “No, not really.  PSSA’s.”  I think generally speaking his view of hell these days is an afterlife spent in school taking PSSA tests. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t rant again….Except to say that the view of schooling this regimen seems to imply stands in contrast to the kinds of things I took up earlier today in thinking about the kinds of personal investments we make and personal rewards we gain from the highly individual and completely compelling journeys that we get to go on with our students over the years.  This transformative relationship that is born in a mutual journey in learning is missed in our current obsession with standardized measurements.

Let me hasten to say that this doesn’t mean we have to be against assessment.  I happen to be the chair of our steering committee for our Middle States accreditation (Oh, Happy, Happy Day!), and I am a firm believer in assessing what we are doing and evaluating how well our students are learning.  On the other hand, our methods should be as subtle as the human hearts and minds whose stock we are taking.  Such subtlety takes time and, not incidentally, money–something in short supply in both educational systems and their monitors.  The result is standardized tests that result in…well, standardized expectations and standardized students, producing students who are good at taking tests.  Is this what an education is for?

As it happens, I ran across another article by Diane Ravitch.  Ravitch seems to be in the air when I have these conversations with my son.  She says it better than I do anyway:

The Problem Is Bigger Than a Pineapple – Bridging Differences – Education Week

At present, the standardized tests are used inappropriately. There should be no stakes attached to them. Decisions about teacher evaluation should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about bonuses should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about closing schools should not be tied to student scores. Decisions about retaining students should not be tied to student scores. All of these are weighty decisions that should be made by experienced professionals, taking into consideration a variety of factors specific to the child, the teacher, and the school.

Tests are a tool, not a goal. We should use them as needed, not let them use us. Their misuse has turned them into a weapon to narrow the curriculum, incentivize cheating, promote gaming the system, and control teachers. The more we rely on high-stakes standardized tests, the more we destroy students’ creativity, ingenuity, and willingness to think differently, and the more we demoralize teachers. The important decisions that each of us will face in our lives cannot be narrowed to one of four bubbles. We must prepare students to live in the world, not to comply on command.

(via Instapaper)

I am happy that I have had many students that did not comply on command and could not be defined by the bubbles they filled out.  It must be some kind of testimony to the human spirit that they survived the education we have foisted on them in the name of achievement.


4 thoughts on “Education is for…passing tests

  1. Chuck Livermore

    If students are too individualistic for standardized tests, does that mean that there are no standards? What is the proper measuring stick if it is not a test? What means should we use to determine if a teacher has done his/her job or not? Perhaps we shouldn’t ask such questions. After all, “weighty decisions that should be made by experienced professionals” should not be pondered by us mere mortals.

  2. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

    Chuck, in my own school a lot of people use portfolio systems to evaluate what students are learning, how well they are learning it, and how we might need to change things if they aren’t learning the skills and knowledge sets that they ought to. This is not so much about each student being individualistic, but recognizing that each student brings different gifts and abilities to the learning community, contributes different things, learns in different ways, and will be stronger in some areas than others. The key is that (so far) a computer can’t recognize that in the way that a teacher actually can, cultivating a student where they are at and helping them develop their native creativities and shoring up their weaknesses for the good of the whole. Ironically, it is, I think, the testing systems that is highly individualistic in a particular sense of that word. Students are treated as individual standardized items of production, as widgets, rather than people. They recognize that they are being treated that way, which is why most Americans grow up being absolutely disgusted and bored with their educational experience. The irony of the hypertrophic testing industry in the United States is that secondary schools are going bonkers over them at just the moment that more and more colleges are saying that they (in their SAT and other forms) are not very good measures of student learning and future students success. My son has had colleges tell him that no one will pay any attention to them except as a formality to go through in the admissions process. In other words, they have very little to do with evaluating learning or potential, they have to do with reporting, sorting and complying with federal and state laws.

  3. Chuck Livermore

    I like the idea of portfolios as an evaluation tool. That is mostly what we used to show the progress of our children in our homeschool. There were tests also that were mandated by the state. There were no rewards or consequences connected to the tests. They were merely used as an evaluation tool and to compile statistics.

    I am surprised that you say that tests are not good measures of future success. Are there actually studies that show there isn’t a correlation between high SAT scores and good grades in higher education? Or poor SAT scores and poor work in college? I haven’t studied this myself, but it does seem counterintuitive. I would like to hear your data or reasoning on this. I can understand that no one gives any weight to the SAT scores of someone after they enter their undergraduate studies. They would be evaluated on their current work, not past achievements. But other than a few exceptions, I would expect those who did well in high school would do well in the university.

    1. Peter Kerry Powers Post author

      The best measure of success in college is consistently shown to be whether you’ve taken a rigorous curriculum in high school and how you’ve performed in such a curriculum. I.E., better to take a rigorous curriculum and struggle some than to take a bunch of easy classes and get all A’s. There’s not a necessary correlation between that curriculum and doing well on SAT’s–some students struggle with standardized tests, and SAT’s and other standardized tests have been shown to have biases that skew results, though this has gotten better over the years.

      The problem with standardized tests in my view is not simply the question of whether or not they are a good measure and are helping learning, but simply the fact that teachers start inevitably teaching to them and teaching about them. If your job depends on your students improving standardized tests scores, you start spending all your time on the narrower definitions of learning provided by tests, or even spending your time learning how to take tests. Literally. I think the effect on education is deleterious. Moreover, there’s no evidence that it is working. Under current testing regimes under No Child Left Behind, nearly every school in central PA will be found inadequate in a couple of years. That’s utterly absurd. Some schools are struggling, most are OK, and a few really are exceptionally good public schools. I’d include my son’s high school–Camp Hill–in the bunch with about 90% of the student body going on to college of some sort. Yet under current testing regimes and expectations, even a school like Camp Hill may fail the political test and be subject to sanction. You can bet teachers are spending more and more time on test taking to make sure that doesn’t happen. Whether students are learning any more, I doubt. I don’t doubt they are becoming better test takers.


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