Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On High-Stakes Testing

Voice of the People contributor Eric Thompson asks how we can measure academic success without testing. As someone with a great respect for the scientific method, I have to agree that testing hypotheses against reality is the sine qua non of sorting out fact from fiction (or even fondness, in the case of things we wish were true).

But let's ask "in service of what end?". What are we testing, the kids’ learning or the schools’ teaching? Ideally it should be both, but it’s only the kids who pay the price if their test scores come back low. What do we do when that happens? Do we try to adjust our teaching to aim more squarely at their demonstrated level of preparedness and interest, or do we just slap a “slow learner” tag on them and ship them up the line, with lowered expectations, to the next grade?

The sad fact of the matter is that the primary determinant of what we teach our kids is not what they want to learn, or are ready to learn, or would be useful for them to learn, it’s their birthdays. If you were born in Year X, that makes you Y years old, and therefore we will place you in Grade Z and treat you exactly the same as everyone else born in Year X, because you’re all essentially identical little square pegs, and we’ve got a whole bunch of identically sized square holes you’ll exactly fit into. Good at English but bad at math? On to the next grade anyway; sorry about that math thing. Or maybe we’ll hold you back a year; sorry about that English thing. In an era where we have beaucoup computing power to customize our treatment of highly individual children, we’re still treating them all like mass-produced fenders working their way down a conveyor belt in an auto plant.

And why is it that we measure “success” based exclusively on a child's facility with math and English, simply because those are most readily reduced to simplistic true-false questions that are easily quantified into even more simplistic 3-digit test scores? How do we measure “success” in art, music, philosophy, critical thinking, history, honesty, community service, or other abstruse subjects we hope the schools are also inculcating in our young people? And even other things that we can measure — like gymnastics, punctuality, or driving a car — don’t count toward a student’s supposed 3-digit “worth”, yet aren’t they valuable as well?

The point that the opt-out folks are making, Mr. Thompson, isn’t that tests are worthless, it’s that they’re way too limited; way, way overvalued; and have way, way, way too much emphasis being placed on them (thus the phrase “high-stakes”, which is not a compliment) in lieu of trying to produce well-rounded, responsible adults.

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As long as there are tests, there will be prayer in public schools.

— bumper sticker


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