Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pencils Down!

Doing some focused web surfing recently I came across an old (2001) article by David Thornburg that really got the juices flowing. This piece, "Pencils Down! How Decontextualized Standardized Testing Can Destroy Education", is a great reflection on what by now has become a near epedimic level phenomenon that actually IS destroying public school education. I recommend you give it a read @

Before we delve into his explanation of HOW this type of testing does so much damage though, I'd like to offer up a bit of an explanation as to WHY administrators, many of whom probably understand things the way Mr. Thornburg does, go ahead and test anyway...

Part of the story has to do with our "kick ass" accountability-focused culture, in which it is assumed that left to their own devices, people simply sit on their hands and don't: work, do what they're supposed to, teach, learn, whatever... I can't possibly buy in to that idea. There are far too many people I know, teachers included, who do what they ought, even more, because their lives are inspired, satisfied, and given meaning through doing. Not only is the accountability culture misreading human motivation, but it does a great deal of damage through the ways it reacts to that misreading. That, however, is a reflection for another blog post.

The way Thornburg puts it "...our educational system is operating on the principle that what gets measured gets done." But, as has been pointed out recently by so many who observe the reactions of school communities to growing testing programs, what actually gets done is teaching to the test. Let’s spin this scenario out a bit - If the test doesn't measure what's worth knowing (and any correlation of test questions to Bloom's Taxonomy, the rock on which all modern understanding of learning is based, will bear that out), then teaching to the test is to teach toward things not worth knowing, making this whole debacle a Gordian knot that increasingly becomes harder and harder to unravel.

I assert that some of today's politically driven top level Educational administrators understand this full well, but persist. Why? Because they hope that by currying favor with a gullible public through announcements of raised test scores, they’ll solidify their own self-serving positions. It’s all part of a dance in which they further muddy the waters by mouthing platitudes about how what goes on in their districts really isn't teaching to the test at all. But if they were sincere, they would explicitly prohibit teachers from doing that and put in measures to make sure they comply. This simply doesn't ever happen. The testing phenomenon continues to spiral out of control.

If, for whatever poor reason it gives, a district engages in standardized testing, then it has to deal with the logistical realities of testing on a mass scale. There are hundreds of millions of students out there and they all are supposed to be learning multiple disciplines across numerous grade levels, all of which require tests. This leaves the Ed administrator with the challenge of getting a Mount Everest of assessments done with limited funds, manpower, and time. The answer to this dilemma is to use assessment tools (tests) that are expedient (cheap and easy). Computer graded ‘fill-in-the-bubbles’ student answer sheets, for instance, can be administered, graded, and paid for with the very meager resources available to school districts. Even essay questions, items that appear to probe thought processes, not just factual recall, are really designed with the logistical challenges of administering and grading them foremost in their authors' minds - format, length, and grading criteria all subordinated to these considerations.

At the end of this chain of malpractice, we end up giving the tests we CAN give - not the tests we ought to give, tests that actually measure things of value. And we lie to the public about it, telling them that all of this is part of giving today's youngsters the education they deserve. The situation is worse now, sadly, than it was when Thornburg originally wrote the piece I cite here. :( :( :(


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