A Short-Sighted Sprint to Measurable Glory

A few months back, I was tagged by Patrick Higgins to write an entry for the “This I Believe” meme series that has been making its way around the blogosphere.  In response, I churned out this fun piece on how educators can learn a ton about teaching and learning from attending middle school dances!

As often happens in the meme world, I’ve been tagged again—-This time by one of my favorite Twits, Kevin Jarrett over at NCS Tech.  Kevin’s a brilliant blogger who shares pretty remarkable resources all the time.  What’s more, I just plain loved his This I Believe meme because it emphasized the importance of teachers taking responsibility for results—a strand that has been running through my mind lately.

Having enjoyed the opportunity to write a This I Believe meme the first time, I figured I’d give it another whirl.  Only this time around, I figured I’d write about standardized testing.  It’s perfect timing for me, considering we just finished giving our exams this week:

Administering an end of grade standardized test could be one of the single most boring acts in the life of a classroom teacher.  Passing out dozens of Number 2 pencils, instructing students in the finer points of bubbling multiple choice answer sheets, reading scripted directions from an 88-page manual and doing my best not to nod off, I waded into the testing haze once again this week.

Having taught for fifteen years, this annual tradition is really no surprise to me.  In fact, testing is something that I’ve often defended despite my own misgivings because it is a tool for measurement that has been embraced by the general public—-and the general public pays my salary!

But this year’s testing was different.  I’m not sure why, but halfway through Wednesday’s reading exam, I found myself quietly crying.

You see, I was looking out over a classroom of kids that I know as beautifully complex creatures.  They’re inquisitive and curious, embracing challenging questions about the inherent justice and injustice in the world.  They’ve wrestled with the idea of standing up to power and tried to explain the origins of hate.  They’ve had their thinking challenged and challenged the thinking of others time and again over the past 180 days.

They’ve explored music and art, seeing beauty and understanding the importance of design.  They’re humorous—and they tend to find joy even in the most challenging circumstances.  Almost all have personal passions, developing levels of mastery in areas ranging from dirt biking and skateboarding to writing and dance. They’ve shown compassion, demonstrated respect, and developed an attitude of exploration.

Each is learning about  himself, his friends and our world every day. 

But in the end, none of that “growth” will matter.  Instead, my students—and your children—will be defined by one mystical number generated from a collection of answers on one multiple choice exam given on one day in June.

As I tried to gather myself in the back of the room, I wondered what the consequences of our commitment to rigid promotion standards based on standardized exams will be.  Will schools push right-brained activities further into the background in a short-sighted sprint to “measurable glory?”  Have other teachers been forced to compromise what they know about the kids in their class in an attempt to simply make the grade?

How many students will see themselves as failures because their “results” don’t “meet or exceed expectations?”  Are we sure that an unbending emphasis on the skills measured by multiple choice tests will bring our children success in a poorly defined future—-and what are the consequences if we are wrong?

“This isn’t an issue you can fix today,” I whispered to myself before returning to the mechanical directions and procedures of exam day, “But someone has to rethink testing

This I believe.”

Now, for a bit of tagging.  I’d love to see “This, I Believe” pieces from:

John Holland at Circle Time:  Lead from the Start

Ariel Sacks at On the Shoulders of Giants

Any of the Brilliant Folks at In Practice

Here are the directions for this meme:

Barry Bachenheimer started this on a whim today, and tagged me with it to get it going. Most memes have very definitive rules for passing along or posting certain material, but Barry has given this one some really free “legs.” It’s description is simple:

National Public Radio does a piece called “This We Believe” where individuals share essays they have written that enumerates their philosophies. With this concept in mind in terms of curriculum ideas, (with apologies to the National Middle School Association and National Public Radio), “This I Believe.”


6 thoughts on “A Short-Sighted Sprint to Measurable Glory

  1. Carly Albee

    I bet you’re right. I think that the public usually tends to think, “yeah, standardized tests will tell us if kids are learning or not.” These are the same tough issues that you’ve struggled with many times in your blog. Yes, we need accountability…is testing the best way? I don’t really know if Danes would benefit or lose from testing. Fries my brain every time I think about it.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Sweet, Carly. Jazzed that I wasn’t the only one struggling to stay awake!
    I actually feel like a stalker half the time during testing, considering we’re supposed to always be standing, always be looking, always be moving and always be staring!
    A bit awkward to say the least…..
    I wonder how the Danes will react to testing? My guess is that the general public will embrace it because it seems logical—-give every kid a multiple choice test and you’ll be able to see what they’ve learned and compare them to others.
    If only it were that simple!
    Rock on,

  3. Carly Albee

    My directions in this year’s testing manual were a little different than years before. It went like this:
    “Please make sure that you have two number two pencils. If you do not have two sharpened number two pencils please raise your hand now so that I can come stab your eyes out with my two sharpened number two pencils and put you out of your misery before you take this 5 hour Algebra I test. I am now going to pass out graph paper. Please raise your hand if you did not get any graph paper. When I am done pouring lemon juice on the paper cuts that I just gave myself with your graph paper to try to distract myself from this boredom, I will bring you some graph paper.”
    I’m not bitter about testing. Really, I just got more bored this year than usual. Really really bored. We couldn’t work on anything during the tests so I had to play silly mind games the whole time. My favorite was the good ol’ “See how long you can go without looking at the clock” game.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    Imagine: On March 3rd and 9:15 AM, every 11th grade English student in every school in the state (in the nation?) will be reading page 207, paragraph 3. line 2, word 4, syllable 1 of the state mandated, testing company supplied text!
    I always love your comments on testing, Mike! They’re so much more passionate than mine are and they push my thinking.
    You definitely should check out the comment section of this blog entry:
    I’ve been duking it out with a few guys who are making the case that the scripted-ness you describe is actually a good thing, that teaching is an easy gig and that teachers, in general, are failures.
    I’m sure you’ll have a few things to say to them!
    Kevin wrote:
    Will that ever show up on a standardized test? No, it will show up where it counts, in the real world, as these kids go out into it and make it their own
    Thanks for the kind words, Kevin.
    You know what my worry is, though?
    I’ve changed my classroom practices a ton in the past two years in response to pressure to produce results on EOG exams—primarily because my kids have the lowest scores on the hallway and that stands out when the results come back.
    Now, I know that my kids are better off than they would have been had they not had me as a teacher. I recognize that the opportunities that I give them to wrestle with ideas that can’t be measured on multiple choice exams are valuable.
    And so do the parents of my students—who are generally thrilled when their kids are assigned to my room.
    What’s more, I know that the activities that I expose my students to actually address required elements of the standard course of study. I can tie every lesson back to one of the standards.
    The only hitch is that the test measures a limited number of the skills in the curriculum—and the stuff that is the most important for students to learn isn’t tested because it’s not multiple-a-choice-able.
    In response to the pressure I feel, I’ve drifted away from teaching those skills and towards rigid instruction that narrowly mirrors the skills measured on the end of grade exam.
    So I’m not sure that my kids in future classes will be better prepared for life, but I know that they’ll be better prepared for the test.
    And that scares me.
    Can you tell that this is a topic I haven’t come to resolution on yet?

  5. Kevin Jarrett

    Your words are powerful and heartfelt, spoken with the experience of a veteran classroom teacher who has “seen it all” (what was teaching like before high-stakes testing?”). I hope someday to have 15 years of classroom teaching experience, but if I don’t get into a ‘regular’ classroom of my own soon, they’re going to have to raise the manadatory retirement age!
    I get what you are saying but do disagree with the statement “But in the end, none of that ‘growth’ will matter.” Granted, none (or very little) of that growth will be VISIBLE in terms of the bubble-sheet assessment they will turn in, but you and I *BOTH* know it will be visible throughout the balance of their academic careers, and their future lives.
    So, while high-stakes testing gets all the headlines, teachers like you work quietly to inspire, inform, question, challenge, cajole, support, guide and direct an entire generation of students to greatness.
    Will that ever show up on a standardized test? No, it will show up where it counts, in the real world, as these kids go out into it and make it their own.
    Stay the course, my friend.

  6. Mike

    Ah yes, testing. Here in one of the great educational testing capitals of the civilized world, Texas, we seem to be moving in the direction of end of course examinations rather than the 2/3 of the way through the year standardized, high stakes tests currently known as TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). There is no upside in this potential movement as there is no upside in the status quo.
    Here’s a multiple choice question. Choose carefully: Who is best prepared to judge whether a student should graduate from high school?
    (A) A state education bureaucrat reviewing only four scores from four tests taken during the student’s junior year.
    (B) Teachers who know the student, work with them every day, have read and graded hundreds of assignments, and have the cumulative records of 12 years of effort at hand.
    If you can, with a straight face, honestly choose “A,” congratulations! You have identified yourself as:
    (A) Clueless
    (B) Not a serious person
    (C) Margaret Spellings
    (D) A stockholder in an educational testing company
    (E) All of the above
    End of course exams, particularly if they serve only to take the place of the TAKS tests in that they will determine whether a student graduates, have the potential to be of even less use to actual teachers and students, and even more destructive to actual learning.
    There are some in state legislatures and education company circles who see end of course exams as a perfect vehicle to mandate “the curriculum” (AKA: Programmed Instruction and a variety of other terms). Instead of spending six to eight weeks teaching the kids what they need to know to pass a given, specific exam as we now do with the TAKS tests, we would find ourselves spending an entire school year slavishly teaching to the test. Teachable moments? Forget it. Flexibility for different classes? A thing of the past. Meeting the needs of individual students through a variety of materials? Not allowed. Teachers passing on a lifetime of knowledge in unique ways? You must be joking!
    To ensure that students pass the end of course test, no doubt the company that produces the test will also produce a complete curriculum that will enable students to pass the test, and without which, test scores will likely be less than optimal. And this magic curriculum will be imposed on entire states (even the nation, if some get their way).
    To the minds of those who would choose “A,” this is sheer brilliance! Why, it would take those annoying teachers who think they know teaching and learning better than legislators and businessmen almost completely out of the equation. After all, everything wrong with education is the fault of teachers, so with the perfect curriculum, written by non-teachers–all will not only be well, we will live, as Dr. Pangloss would put it, in the best of all possible worlds. “The Curriculum” would impose uniformity, order, and would guarantee that the politically correct curriculum of the current legislative session is force fed to each and every student! Imagine: On March 3rd and 9:15 AM, every 11th grade English student in every school in the state (in the nation?) will be reading page 207, paragraph 3. line 2, word 4, syllable 1 of the state mandated, testing company supplied text! The same will be true of each and every discipline that will be tested. Think of it: Absolute, centralized, state and/or federal control over what happens in each and every classroom, every day, everywhere!
    There will be no more bad teachers, because teachers will be unnecessary. “The Curriculum” will solve all educational woes. All that will be required are discipline monitors/facilitators. And since there are no more bad teachers, the magic curriculum will meet all possible needs, producing students who can pass the test at the end of the year! And we will know that “The Curriculum” works because “The Test” will prove it.
    Of course, there will be no more excellent teachers, teachers who make a real difference and inspire students to become more than they are, to build bigger, better brains. But what’s really important anyway? Learning or passing standardized tests? Individual improvement and growth or the production of data for state and federal educrats?
    Come to think of it, the cost savings would be incredible! The single largest expense of running every school is personnel salaries and benefits. Why, with this utopian system, we could simply build long, low rectangular buildings with row upon row of computer terminals (manufactured and sold by testing companies!) By doing away with individual classrooms, we could save even more on actual humans, and computer instruction is certainly more efficient than employing human beings! Could this be the wave of the future?
    Make no mistake, mandatory, high stakes testing is not at all about education. It is all about control and power, in other words, it’s the very definition of politics. Thank goodness all those who would answer “A” have the best interests of kids at heart!

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