At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Monday, April 22, 2013

Standardized Tests: What They Can't Show Us

I admire and trust a number of people, but Craig Dunham has to be one of the people hovering near the top of that list. Craig is the headmaster at Veritas Classical Academy--a blended model Christian school in Oklahoma City--and he served with me here in St. Louis until the end of the 2010-11 school year. We were colleagues in the Ethics department at Westminster and I always admired Craig's thoughtfulness and opinion about what works and what doesn't in education. Not only is Craig a quality thinker, he is also a published author on the subject of young self-identity and teaching. But one of the things I've always enjoyed about Craig is his humility. He warns on his classical education blog that it's important we not think of ourselves as the pinnacle of history, that we have figured a few things out in the scheme of education, but we continue to paddle the surface of an inexhaustible ocean. There's a lot that we do in schooling; there's also a lot we don't know.

A lot has been said about curricular materials and standards of education recently, and I discussed my preliminary take on the Common Core initiative in my post from April 3rd. One undercurrent in this sea that's been on my mind recently is the issue of standardized testing. Now, let me say first of all that there is a definite place for these tests, and they are not going away. At Westminster, we give what my daughter called "bubble tests" at almost every level. While I can't recall if seventh grade does much in that area, we do give the EXPLORE test in eighth grade; freshmen take the ERB test in the fall, as do sophomores with the PLAN test. Juniors (along with select sophomores) are hit with the PSAT/NMSQT in mid-October. And then juniors and seniors are peppered with (depending where you live) the SAT or ACT for college.

My friend Craig has just pulled himself out from under a week of standardized tests (hereafter known as ST), mainly the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the PLAN test. As he finishes his second year as headmaster at Veritas, he has some interesting ruminations (well worth a couple of deep readings) on this whole world of ST. Yes, it is necessary to probe the work of students in this manner, and it does help schools see if there are gaps or holes in their curriculum that need shoring up (this is why our school in Florida used the Stanford Achievement Test...the other SAT). In short, there are benefits to testing. And it never hurts your school's public relations if you can say your students scored in a high percentile of all students taking a particular test. We should be proud when our students demonstrate a high level of achievement.

However, the current push toward ST and a number of initiatives that incorporate such matters can muddy rather than purify the waters. Craig rightly points out that there can come a mentality of "teaching toward the test", but even more disconcerting than this is the worldview that comes with an ST-emphasized universe. And that zeitgeist is as follows: All success must be measurable, and if we can verify what a student can upchuck back on a bubble sheet, then we particularize his success level and can move on.

As Stewie Griffin would say on many a Family Guy episode: "What the deuce?"

In fact, there is a LOT that STs never test because such areas can't be measured by a test. Craig notes several aspects of a student's experience which are essential to lifelong learning: (1) leadership potential and growth, (2) enjoyment of spontaneous creation, (3) value of actively engaging in community, (4) risk-taking and innovation, (5) empathy and compassion, (6) ability to ask deep questions, (7) reception of constructive criticism, (8) integrity and humility, (9) desire for truth, goodness, and beauty, (10) collaboration with others, and (11) overall love of learning.

In other words, a stay-on-the-intellectual-surface, soulless, cynical, pompous cheat and liar who is disdainful of others and who just wants their education to be a door to a wealthy lifestyle can score highly on the SAT or ACT and get a full ride to the university of their choice. On the other hand, a passionate and insatiable learner who assists well in group projects, loves outdoor walks in the early days of spring or the color changes of autumn, prays with a friend who lost their father in a tragic accident, asks her history teacher a follow-up question on the origins of World War I, and participates as a school peer counselor for younger students could score a 23 on the ACT.

Guess which one I think is the better student? Guess who I would choose to have in class? Guess who I would hire if I ran a business?

You said student #2, right? Good for you.

Of course, we want improvement. Naturally, it's a good thing to check this sliver of a student's overall development. But it's just a critical, as Craig says, to help students (and their parents) "understand that the ultimate goal of assessment is not to pass the test and then fail life."

I don't counterpoint this assessment issue because I wasn't that great of a ST taker (even though I recognized early on what my glass ceiling was on the SAT). I think what Craig points out has significant merit and wisdom because I've spent fourteen years in the classroom--less than some, more than others--and I know that there is much more that STs leave untouched than they measure.

As a veteran of teaching religious studies, I see a parallel between education and one's spiritual faith. We like to think both areas are measurable, but in fact different people develop at varied paces. My father couldn't figure out what a verb was for a long time (probably well into fourth or fifth grade) until one day the light came on. Other students who are deemed "slow" are merely deliberate and enjoy chewing on the wisdom that comes their way, wanting to turn it over in their minds (Not everyone needs to be at the same pace). In the same way, one's faith journey is not always a rhythmic, measurable pace where one can verify if they are a "strong Christian" (I don't believe there is such an animal as a strong Christian) or not. Measuring faith and learning--while part and parcel of the educational experience--can have serious soul backdraft if not kept in proper perspective.

Ah, well. Something to consider anyway. Maybe the whole point here is patience. Students who have a passion to know and grow in wisdom, who are determined to be lifelong learners, and who exhibit a love of truth, integrity, and leadership...eventually they will blossom with or without an ST. For me, the thrill of the ride--not the destination--has always been the thing.

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