Testmania, the Measurement Police, and Us

Attention: All Measurement Police! We could use some help from Search & Rescue. It seems your standardized testing has gotten stuck in our education. 

First, some disclaimers:
– I get the concern regarding national standards in education.
– The 3 R’s are important. (Almost as important as the 4th and 5th Rs: Respect and Responsibility)
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), although earning a spotty report card, has shined a much needed spotlight on a segment of our kids who have historically been chronically underserved.
– I also get the national concerns regarding the phenomenon we have come to call The Achievement Gap. It’s just that I’m more concerned about what I call “The Attitude Gap.”  Sow attitude, effort and character and we’ll reap a Two-Fer: 1) Better culture; 2) Better achievement.

The late Theodore Sizer (1932-2009) said that big-time testing “is defensible only to the extent that it actively forwards and enhances a child’s learning.” As currently practiced, it straitjackets teachers with a pretty dysfunctional set of incentives:
– Don’t put much time into the kid who will definitely pass the test because, well, she’s definitely going to pass the test.
– Don’t pour hours into the kid who will never pass the test because… he’s never going to pass the test.
– The 50-50 prospect actually gets a decent deal in this arrangement because it can be worth the teacher’s while to put concerted instruction time into the kid who just might pass the test with an extra push.  (Good for him/her, but I thought the idea was for NO child to be left behind…)

But that’s not the only problem with Testmania.  Although big on the deductive side, it tends to devalue inductive learning.  Its requisite rewards and threats basically say to the teacher, Place your focus on content that is already known. Your students can feel free to explore the unknown on their own time. Talk about a curiosity bummer! What have they done to my school, Ma?

Speaking of Ma (and Pa), perhaps the biggest downside to NCLB is that it quickly, albeit unintentionally, evolved into a national insult to parents by essentially saying to them, Since you lack the expertise to distinguish between a good and a bad school, we will impose ourselves as T.H.E. experts serving on your behalf. So step back, Mom and Dad, and rest assured that we’ll let you know which schools pass muster and which do not.

As one might expect, Testmania has given rise to its fair share of cheating.  What’s different this time around is the identity of some of the cheaters: the teachers.  Huh?  It’s not hard to imagine an Education Heaven where luminaries like Sizer, John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois, Horace Mann, and Anne Sullivan roll around in their graves and exclaim, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

The Measurement Police are fond of citing comparative statistics and presenting charts showing how American kids are way behind China, Japan, Finland, and… just about everybody else. Good on you, Finland, but I’m thinking that we don’t need to be more like you.  We need to be more like… Us!

Twenty-five years ago, James Fallows wrote a great book with that very title: More Like Us – Making America Great Again (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). In his opening sentence, Fallows states his purpose: “… to remind Americans of how unusual our national culture is, and of why it is important that we not become a ‘normal’ society.”

In this spirit, national testing comparisons typically fail to mention that the U.S. continues annually to sit at or near the top of the food chain when it comes to patents granted per capita. (No disrespect intended, but I can’t resist: Yo, Where you at, Finland?!? Just sayin’…) As Bianca Tanis of New York State Allies for Public Education said on CNN, “We are an extremely innovative society, and the system that they’re imposing diminishes innovation, diminishes creativity.” Yup.

On the bright side, some signs suggest that maybe we are beginning to be more like us.  Across the nation, more and more parents are simply refusing to have their children sit for the tests.  Right here in Maine, this spring a third of Brunswick’s 11th graders chose this option, prompting Superintendent Parl Perzanoski to refer to the college town as “the opt out capital of Maine.”

Now that is indeed very much like us… or U.S.  When all else fails, if the people will lead, maybe the leaders will follow.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld