Saturday, August 30, 2014
Test and Schools: Are We about to Turn a Corner?
In today's (Saturday's) New York Times I was happy to read an op-ed piece by Joe Nocera, "Imagining Successful Schools" (link to Nocera's column), a piece that asked the sorts of questions that have been troubling me for years--back to the early 1990s, not long before I retired from public education, when Ohio began its long love affair with "proficiency tests." It was only a matter of time before some dunderheads began to get the idea, Hey, we can use these tests to assess teacher competence!
And so it happened. And Nocera's column revisits some recent research that shows the folly of it all. Most alarming: Good veteran teachers are leaving the profession; many bright young people are deciding not to enter it at all. Of course there are still some wonderful teachers out there--bright, dedicated, compassionate. There are some in every school building in the country. But, as Nocera shows us, it's manifestly not because we're encouraging anyone to be there. In fact, we are arranging things so that the very people we want to attract are saying no thanks and pursuing other careers. Can't say that I blame them.
In my own experience, here's what happened on standardized tests. Most kids did about what they usually did in class; a few did better; a few did worse. But what I noticed (not from my building principal, who was too wise to be fooled by all this stuff)--especially from the central office--was a greater and greater concern with the test results. With scores. Some years my kids did well (I taught English, and my 8th graders took tests on reading and writing), some years not so well. It was just like any other school activity: Some years I had great play casts, other years not so great. Same thing in sports, music, art, whatever. Normal variability.
But what I knew was this: I worked just as hard as I could, every year. I always had the kids do lots of reading and writing--and, later on, "test preparation" (what a waste). So when they did well, I was happy; when they did not so well, I felt bad for them. But I tried never to let those scores--good, bad, ugly--"get to me." I didn't give myself too much credit when they did well--nor blame when they didn't. There are just too many other variables--powerful ones--that affect kids' scores.
And soon testing proliferated (and testing companies were raking in the $$$). One of my grandsons, now in fourth grade, has already taken more standardized tests than I did in my entire school career--kindergarten through grad school. His school focuses on test preparation--as so many school districts must because of all the public attention surrounding the tests (results published in the local paper, etc.). Maybe it's time for some courageous administrators (that term is not an oxymoron!) to step forward and say We are not focusing on test preparation but on education in this building!
Anyway, I'm hopeful that Nocera's article is an early sign that the test-glacier is melting. And that we'll return to the world of sanity, a world where young people want to go into teaching to help kids become learners for life--where young teachers get kids excited about reading and writing and science and math and music and drama and art and ... We need to use tests principally for diagnostic purposes. As I've written before, we need to make the profession of teaching an attractive one, not the repulsive one that it certainly is now.