A Culture of Testing: Our Discommendation

If you don’t know enough about me to realize that I am a nerd, let me provide proof.  I love watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi stories but this series is special. When I am walking the halls at work with an enormous amount of information at my fingertips via my iPad, I am tempted to imagine myself as Captain Picard.  He is actually an excellent model of leadership. I’ll save that study for a future post, though.  My wife thinks it’s crazy that I ruin good entertainment by thinking too deeply about it.  My apologies and fair warning if you share that sentiment.

Fellow fans of Star Trek will recall that Lieutenant Worf, a Klingon officer on the (mostly human) Starship Enterprise received discommendation – a ceremonial shunning – by the Klingon high council as the result of false charges against his family.  He accepts this ultimate dishonor for the good of the Empire.  About a year later, though, Captain Picard raises the issue of the discommendation.  Picard argues “It [the discommendation] is a lie and lies must be challenged.”
I am not the first to do so and I hope fervently I shall not be the last, but I hereby take a similar stand against and challenge as a lie the culture of testing to which we (the entire educational system) have voluntarily subjected ourselves. No one reading this post is likely to require a history of how we have become addicted to standardization, to testing, and to the use of the former to improve the later.  My beliefs on this matter will no doubt be offensive to many of my colleagues; many of them will likely concede the prevelance of standardized tests but may not agree with my perception of the implications that we now live with.
Here is that perception: in its simplest form, we are operating in an educational system designed to produce more correct (standardized) test questions.  ExamWitness the basic premise of the national legislation known as “No Child Left Behind”.  The fundamental purpose of AYP (adequate yearly progress) is to measure whether or not the collective and average performance of students attending a given school has improved since the preceding year.  In other words, the most important question is “did we get more test questions right?”  Schools make formal plans to spend a few minutes of every day and all of several days “preparing” for their state’s test.  This is seen as perfectly normal, proactive and wise.  We schedule classes specifically designed to yield passing scores on graduation and other high stakes tests.  We hire new personnel and make planning decisions that impact every part of the school for the sake of “improvement”.  Throughout my professional career, I have never known the definition of improvement to center around (if not to be exclusively) some form of standardized testing.  Entire systems of operations that show promise in this regard are admired, copied, and finally mandated by law.  We have accepted this brave new world and we work hard to perpetuate it.
I have very deep respect for my colleagues across the country.  In all our defense, this cancer does not announce itself as such.  It celebrates the positive impacts on students who do X as opposed to the Y we have all been struggling with.  Who would dare to stand up to decisions that are so obviously “in the best interests of all students.”  To their credit, actually, many educators have been speaking up about these issues for years.  For most though, this slow change to our collective way of thinking is much more insidious – not unlike the Borg.  The words we use to describe our primary objectives have remained the same, but what we mean by them is now much different.
I, for one, refuse to play along any more.  It’s not active insurrection I’m proposing, it’s a conflict of rhetoric. With all respect to others who literally refuse to administer the tests anymore, that is not what I am suggesting.  I actually believe that standardized tests have their place.  I don’t think they should be the tail that wags our dog, though.  What I will do is lead and work in such a way as to elevate the learning of the students I serve in deep and powerful ways.  I will make it my objective to identify the areas in which our students need to learn more.  Our team will provide them with rich learning experiences.  Until I am proved wrong, I remain convinced that performance on standardized tests will be excellent as a byproduct of this approach. Because we understand the nature of standardized testing, we will also prepare student to articulate their learning in other ways as well.  We will continue to work to improve student learning.  When we say that however, we will not mean “score more points on tests.”
This stance should not come as a surprise to anyone I work alongside every day.  We are on the same page, although each professional in the building is expected to voice his/her own opinion, even (or especially) in dissent.  Anyone else worried about the impact this might have need only examine our track record; this philosophy is not new, just newly affirmed.  I propose that we expect much more from our students than correct answers.  I propose that we see the ability to draw inferences as an indispensible skill.  I propose an academic environment where the acquisition of knowledge is the floor of learning upon which synthesis, evaluation, and creation are built as a matter of course.  I propose preparing young people for a future that sees problem-solving, synthesis and collaboration as basic skills required of all productive members of society.  I reject the lie that teaching children to answer more questions correctly will have any positive impact on their future.  I will not be a party to decision-making that stems from that basic assumption.
Lest you think me naive, I am fully aware of the magnitude of what I am saying.  If it were an easy position to take it would not be necessary to take a stand at all.  I am also prepared to accept the turbulence that this stand may create.  Lieutenant Worf was willing to resign his position as a Star Fleet officer to stand up for his convictions.  I sincerely hope that advocating for deep reflection on our current collective practices will not require me to face a similar choice.

photo credit: albertogp123 via photopin cc

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One response to “A Culture of Testing: Our Discommendation

  1. I get all your Star Trek Next Generation references. I’ve seen every episode more than once.

    As I prepare to re-enter the classroom after 15 years away, I struggle with assessment. I like the way we grade our early learners. Behavior and mastery of skills are separated. Needs improvement, satisfactory, and excellent measure the standards. I’d love to see a similar method in secondary schools. Not turning in work on time or acting out in class would fall under a separate category than mastery of state standards.

    I appreciate the insights from you and the teachers at your school who presented at EdCampBham today. I look forward to finding and implementing great strategies with my students.

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