Reclaiming Testing as Part of the Learning Process

Several weeks ago i got an invitation to comment on what’s working and what could be done better by the Obama campaign… Oh yeah. So, that got the brain going.

As an educator with over 16-years experience (13-years in public schools in California and three-years at Full Sail University in Florida), the issue that concerns me the greatest is that President Obama’s DoE chief Duncan has continued the destructive policies begun during the Bush administration and the atmosphere is getting ugly with educators being blamed for everything wrong with the school system and non-educators using this issue for their own political gains. No one disagrees that public education is in dire need of attention. The problem is that none of the decisions are coming from folks who have spent any meaningful time in the classroom.

Taking a Test, by Renato Ganoza

Let’s begin with everyone’s favorite topic, High-Stakes Testing. Assessing school or teacher performance based on yearly skills-tests is flawed in that it assumes certain results should come from high performing schools. But it is a two-dimensional measure in a four-or-more-dimensional environment. I know that the issue is accountability and that after the highly experimental 60s and 70s the public felt like they didn’t understand what was happening in our classrooms and we needed answers about why the school system seemed to be falling apart. So research was done and tests were devised to try to track school progress. Then, the idea of tracking school progress was escalated to using testing as a means of determining which schools would get funded and which ones would be punished. When we heard that NCLB had the end goal of 100-percent of the students would be proficient at reading and math by a certain year, we knew that this plan was devised by people who have never worked with humans. It’s one thing to say that we are going to give 100-percent to our students as a motto, it’s quite another thing to make that the punishable requirement of a population of many millions.

It may appear scientific to put numbers to traits that we want in our schools and then come up with a number to rank the school, but drilling everything down to a single number only gives you, at best, a snap-shot of where the school (or teacher) was when the test was taken. It would have been one thing if these numbers were based on how many students graduate based on their enrollment numbers, or how many students go to university, or what was the GPA gain of students as they came into the system versus when they exited, or what sorts of interventions were taken for students performing poorly in their classes should be factored into this number. Carefully tracking the socio-economic status of the student population over time should be added to the equation because schools with fewer resources are going to wear out their teachers and staff more quickly and require greater support than schools from affluent areas.

In fact if what we really want is accountability this can be done without disrupting the business of education by having specialists who know what a good performing school looks like access the school over multiple-measures instead of using high-stakes testing which is akin to just taking the school’s temperature and having them turn their heads and cough to determine whether they are healthy or not.

Image: Keerati /

It’s not enough that these test are an artificial representation of what a school does, but like all poorly devised measures, it does not give one any clue about what to do to fix the situation. Using testing in this manner is a form punishment that is a relic of the factory school system of the previous century where all the parts need to pass inspection before leaving the plant and all the rejects were sent back to be remelted into something else. This is not a way to deal with students today. When an assessment is conducted today, the purpose is to find out where the individual student is in the spectrum of proficiency and the assessment is meant to help the student and educator figure out what to do next. It isn’t a number, or a rank, it’s a means of helping the student learn. We’ve known this for decades. But it would appear that decision makers continue to use models that are still thinking of schools as factories (or businesses) and students as products.

If the problem is accountability than there are ways to measure school performance without waylaying the educational process for testing not connected to student learning. Going back to the problem of communication and a sense of not knowing what goes on in the classroom, the accountability problem might better be answered by decision makers and communities getting off their asses and spending meaningful time in their school and starting a dialogue to help community schools perform better. This business of trying to fix things remotely via testing and funding constraints isn’t working. Some say that it is, in fact, doing a good job undermining public education, destroying teacher confidence and when the system collapses, be part of the final push towards privatization so that they can pick the bones and make money. Testing needs to be pulled out of the dungeon of our times and back into it’s proper place as a means of doing a better job teaching and learning and not reducing education to an artificial number because some sectors of society can’t be bothered with properly managing our educational system.