Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Tests, Testing & Test Scores: Out of Dark Confinement

Personally I'm a bit worn out from all of the talk about test scores and I imagine you are too. I want to say it here, that I know we are measuring the wrong things and doing so with such fevered intensity, that we obfuscate what will matter most to children and young people as they grow and mature: the multiple opportunities to compose and remix their very selves.

Composition is not a five paragraph theme.

Some years ago I was briefly a student of poet, Molly Peacock. I had taken a class at the 92nd Street Y with her and then stayed on that next year as a private student. She was far kinder than my poetry was good. And I recall the most significant advice she offered: Sometimes you have to let the poem go and say it is good enough as it is.

A lovely bit of life lesson in that. One that has held me in good stead as I have applied that wisdom to other facets of my life.

And so I wonder what life lessons our young people are learning as we line them up each spring (April is no longer the cruelest month) and subject 9- and 10-year-olds to four consecutive days of testing? What truths about themselves are they composing? I am reminded here of a time when I was the Director of Literacy for Newark Public Schools. At that time, mandatory 4th grade testing was being field tested and the NJ Commissioner of Education wanted "feedback" about the experience. I directed that the children have access to drawing materials at the end of the test to give feedback in image as well as word.  One child drew a picture of herself inside a coffin.

At the half century mark I can say what matters most in my life, and none of it has to do with the types of things we measure on state tests. The tests oddly enough point at important things: literature, composing, and problem solving. Yet they never ask anyone to pierce beneath the skin of the everyday to make something extraordinary. What we measure on state test is a lot of foolishness and misdirection that hurts children and young adult and occasions them to think narrowly about themselves, their promise. And the more we myopically focus on testing in this country the further afield we get from learning.

I have taught and have worked alongside literally 1000s of teachers in my career. I have conducted arts-based literacy institutes with preschool through graduate school educators and have listened to their stories. When they talk about the significant learning their students have composed, the stories offer an important insight into some ways that learning happens.  Duration is often a theme. Deep learning isn't had on the cheap. Rather, learners come to know often through multiple opportunities to work on the work. Their stories are about wandering and wondering, not certainty. Their stories are about having a caring "other" who scaffolded the learning releasing responsibility along the way.  But most important, the stories are about collaboration and the deep learning that can happen when learners work together.

Our lives are populated with the intention of others.  We are connected. As Whitman in Song of Myself  told us, "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Why do we continue to only value measures that situate the learner as an island unto himself/herself?  Is that perspective even remotely connected to reality? When was the last time you had to work completely alone on a high stakes project? When was the last time you could not access assistance via other people and other resources? Why do we value such oddity?

I have no doubt that children would perform better on international measures if we stopped state testing and focused on local learning. Like Wendell Berry has said we ought to "learn to prefer small-scale elegance."

I have no doubt that children would perform better on international measures if we composed low-stakes assessments and shifted funding from test making companies and scoring (can you say billions?) to fund those locally determined projects.

I have no doubt that children would perform better on international measures if we composed low-stakes assessments that mirrored cognitive tasks we value.

I have no doubt that children would perform better on international measures if we composed low-stakes assessments that resembled public exhibitions.

I have no doubt that children would perform better on international measures if we valued "Do Overs" and collaboration, not "You got one chance on a spring day to get this right."

Like many, I have been watching the protests these last two months that have spread across the globe and I have been inspired.  Might there be a protest across the country about the misdirection of testing?

Do we have a will to change this train wreck by stopping it?

Listen! I will be honest with you;
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes...

Allons! whoever you are! come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though
it has been built for you.
Allons! out of the dark confinement!...

Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well. (Whitman)


  1. I agree with you Mary Ann. Politicians want tests because they are cheap, they are easy to understand, and it's easy to point fingers. None of these reasons is compelling enough in my mind to waste valuable class time on.

  2. I think the results are used to shift attention from severe equity and economic issues in this country to something called school.