Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How Standardized Testing Made Me an Activist, Part I

I begin this blog with an homage to the talk given by Capt. Porter (USN) and Col. "Puck" Mykleby (USMC) at this years Camden Conference. If you listen to their speech/presentation, "A National Strategic Narrative," you will find sense, forward thinking, and clarity of purpose. I have listened to them and find that what they said about developing a national strategic plan spot on for what we must do in our educational strategy. And we must do it now before we further screw over our kids and their future (and ours). I am going to analogize what they said with what is going on in our schools and what we might do to (as they put it) "stop swimming in oatmeal." I refer to them frequently and their ideas have spurred on mine and are the platform for mine.

I will say right off that I am making the points I make in this blog post not AS a member of my local school board, but BECAUSE I serve on my local school board. I do not speak for the board, but I do speak in part TO that board as well as to every person who cares that we are the best people we can be.

This topic (Standardized Testing) has been on my mind for many years, since I was a Junior in high school to be exact. When I sat for the PSAT, it occurred to me that my scores might not mean very much in the real world. I understood that this was, in essence, a "pre-test" for the SAT which I'd take in a few months hence. I started thinking about the value of this kind of testing and what it would actually mean in terms of how well I would do in college, how well I would do as a citizen of my society after college. I concluded that the testing had a big fat ZERO to do with either. But, being a big rule follower, I was going to test when "they" said test, and I would do my best. Rule follower that I was (am?) is part me as a student, person, citizen. Well, I had a brilliant day that day, felt fine, had eaten breakfast, was wearing comfortable clothing, the sun was shining, the room was not too hot or too cold, and I liked the teacher who was proctoring the test. Oh, did I mention that I was a happy young woman with a great family, had not had a tiff with my mother that morning, was not grounded or had not just broken up with a boyfriend? In other words, the stage was set for success on all fronts. All systems go. I was motivated to do well, and I did (well not so great in the math part but that is another story).

Fast forward to the SAT a few months later:

I had a headache. I'd just started my period and was cramping like crazy. I was nearly late for the test due to oversleeping due to cramping all night the night before. My mother and I had a big fight that morning because I got up too late to eat breakfast due to oversleeping due to ..... okay. You get it. Not the optimal situation for a big standardized test. So how did I do? I did OK, but not as good as on the PSAT. I was completely upset by that when the results came in, because I figured my chances of getting into a good college and maybe getting a scholarship were less than perfect. I found myself totally resentful and angry at the testing system and at an educational system where a test could determine that much of a person's future. Even on this small a scale at this early age, I began a kind of activism that is my mind-set today). What I did NOT worry about at the time was whether my scores would have some kind of flashpoint effect on my classroom teachers. (more on that later in part II)

I began to have ongoing and stimulating arguments ( verbal tussles) with my father over testing and grades. We got into it on a nearly weekly basis on the topic of what tests actually do to show my success as a student/learner. I insisted that what I knew could not be well-measured by testing, especially by standardized testing. What if, I argued, the test asked things we hadn't covered? What if it only asked things we had covered? Wouldn't the result be false in either case, a false failure or a false success? How many tests might I need to take to get a range? Why on earth would reward/punishment be based in any way on these tenuous results? I argued that "achievement" was bigger than that. It was also during high school (well, probably around 8th grade) that I began a life-long battle with my father over grading methods. I saw this a big picture, poorly framed. I cringed each time report cards came out, worried that the "grades" would not please him. I didn't care what the grades were intrinsically, but certainly wanted my father's good opinion and that extrinsic factor was certainly at the fore each quarter. How many A's were enough for him? Of course he said the typical paternal thing: "if you are trying your best (as determined by whom?) whatever grade you get is good." Ha! His opinion was that "trying my best" translated to A's and B's in all classes, with a C possible in Math. My side of it was (is) that letter grades, number grades too, are artificial measurements of what we want to know about a student's progress in school. These are even less to do with what they know. More on this part later (Part III).

I digress. But just a little.

Back to the Camden Conference and its connection to standardized testing (henceforth referred to as ST):

It is true (sadly) that our schools are deep into swimming the oatmeal. Crazy nutty programs/plans like NCLB have thickened the oatmeal and made it a horror of a meal for our kids, teachers, schools to be force-fed.

The whole thing is leveraged off the militaristic notion of force and power (the government, school boards, testing agencies) use their power to force a program which only measures disasters and threatens school closures, teachers losing jobs, and withdrawal of federal monetary support. What? Really? This latest Draconian flavor-du-jour is turning the education of our up and coming citizens into mass paranoia, without any positive result in terms of our schools/kids actually doing better. We still STiNK as a nation in terms of the inverse dynamic of money spent to learning acquired (as measured by ST)

We need a Grand Strategy. We must re-frame the conversation RIGHT NOW, and everything we decide must be based upon opportunity and not on some kind of risk-threat concoction, which is what we have now. How so? you might ask.

Here is a simplified answer:

RISK: For students, ST is tied to progressing onward throughout the K-12 system, to graduation rates, to post-secondary work, and definitely to self-esteem. We in the ivory towers get to decide who is "at risk" by using ST, who is "gifted" by using ST, who is "in need of intervention" by using ST. For teachers and schools, we tie success to ST. We decide which schools are those same labels, again by using ST.

THREAT: We are sucked into a vortex of blame by ST, indeed some drum-bangers for NCLB would have us consider which teachers might lose their jobs, which may need "intervention," and which administrators need to be "recycled" or replaced — again by ST scores. In my opinion (I'm not alone on this), Michelle Rhee has done more damage to the national conversation on education in the 21st Century than any other person. She is Maxwell's Silver Hammer on teachers and schools. Rhee positively salivates over the idea of razing the system and starting over. It is all about controlling the risk-threat variables. It's all about control, period. Control through shame and blame.

But I'd rather let an expert tell you. You ought to listen to Dr. Diane Ravitch (the anti-Michelle Rhee). She is much more in the know than I am, but we are essentially saying the same thing. ST does not work. It will never work. "No, no, and absolutely not" is her mantra. Listen to this interview wherein she states that what kids are "learning" through ST is how to take tests. The curriculum is ST rather than being measured by ST.

So what now?

I agree with Col Mykleby and Capt Porter that the grand strategy for re-visioning our national presence in the world is about development of a national narrative, development of the story of who we are as a people. In the case of our country's very broken and uselessly over-funded money pit of a plan for education, we need a national narrative of who we are as promoters of an educated citizenry. They make an excellent point (Mykleby does) that we need citizens, not residents. We are not renting. We are buying. We need to involve all of us in the process. Because I do not have kids K-12 age now, ought I just take myself out of the picture? No. I actually care that the future is populated by thoughtful, reasoning caretakers of the world, of this country. I ought to care. I ought to want the best possible education for them and generations after them. When I hear people grousing about their property taxes going up to "pay for someone else's kids" I see red.

Having said that, there is a growing number of education advocates who believe that we need to stop tying educational opportunity to property taxes and, instead, fund education and support education with national resourcing and local implementation. We need a national narrative on education that places sustainability and productivity under the values umbrella. FYI, I am defining sustainability here as Porter and Mykleby do: an organism (country) that remains diverse and productive over time. Sustainability and productivity are qualitative views, not quantitative views. The purely quantitative view is wholly about "measurable results," i.e. ST.

What we need to develop is a broad view of enduring interest. Enduring interests lead to "doing" and doing leads to progress, i.e. sustainability. It is a non-linear way of looking at the world. We need a non-linear way to see things. The linear view has no end in sight. No end in sight is dangerous, as it both procrastinates our planning and leads to apathy and discouragement. American Exceptionalism, which is one of our points of pride as a nation, is not that we are naturally smarter than others, or naturally deserving of all good things over others, but is really more about the development of strengths and talents and ideas over time. These strengths, talents, and ideas form a picture of us, but are not the whole picture. We have come to prize the idea of our exceptionalism as our righteous influence in the world. It sticks in the national craw when we hear where we fall educationally compared to other civilized nations: Finland, Australia, Canada, etc. We hate the fact that we are sinking harder and faster every year on those lists. Standardized Testing rears its ugly punitive head again! We need to stop the madness, get out of the oatmeal and stop caring about the lists. We need to focus instead on the development of sustainability and productivity under a value system that fosters individual and national progress. We need every person who claims to be a citizen rather than a resident to stop looking at education as a pay to play system. Formal education ought to be world class and free. We need a national and local narrative that is "written" by all of us, to the end that no one feels left out of the conversation. We need to "get" that influence is best accomplished by reason and principle, not by bullying or coercion. We need to encourage students to the point that the narrative of who they are and where they are headed is "written" by them with our help. We need to begin to focus on momentum, in a non-linear way.

We need to involve students and teachers and parents and administrators in an ACTIVE process to re-vision our systems, locally. We need to include in our thinking the notion of credible influence, which focuses on strengths as a vehicle to rehabilitate areas of weakness. Dr. Mary Meeker (Structure of Intellect) pioneered that concept in her pioneering work, the Upside Down Classroom.

She asserts that every person is comprised of weaknesses and gifts (abilities) and that the weaknesses can be lessened if accessed via at least two well-developed gifts or abilities. She identified 26 areas of ability possibility. A good example of an ability which can be tapped into in order to problem solve is a strength I have in the area of "visual closure." This ability strength allows me to play Wheel of Fortune or do puzzles or figure out geometry. If I am weak in an area (algebra) and have trouble with the cognitive part of formulas, my abilities in kinesthetics might be a way in... I can perhaps build formulas out of lego and "get" the concept. If I am an auditory learner, I might need to record lessons to hear later. If I am a visual learner, listening to lectures won't help me but seeing the text will. If I am a kinesthetic/visual learner, I may need to take lots of notes (engaging hand and later eye). Tell me how ST will measure this. It will not. Teachers in the classroom notice not what kids are learning but HOW they are learning. They are trained to shuttle kids into experiences that allow them to engage positively with materials and concepts. How does ST do this? It does not.

Some of you are likely saying (right now as you read) Well, ST will discover what the weakness are and give teachers a clue to interventions. NOPE. ST will only find out what kids did not put down on the test that day and at that time and under those circumstances present on that day. We are swimming the oatmeal and drowning. We need to be bold! We should endeavor to reflect our best values, live up to our best traditions, and engage in common sense in planning and implementation of ideas.

To that end, we should just stop ST and rely upon our professional educators to know what is working and what isn't. These folks are in the classroom with our kids on a daily basis. They serve as facilitators of learning (as a lifelong undertaking I would hope) and serve as models of work ethic, work habits, critical approach to problem solving, etc... the list of their involvement is long and illustrious. In Part II, I will talk in greater detail about what ST is doing as a threat to teaching and teachers.

In the meantime, contact your local school boards and tell them NOT to fund ST in your school district. Find out if (how) you can opt out of ST.

See you on the flip side.


  1. Check out this article:

    Pretty much covers all aspects, pros & cons.
    I am a great tester, but decry its use to evaluate students, teachers and districts.

    On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program was signed into law, inviting states to compete for $4.35 billion in extra funding based on the strength of their student test scores. On Mar. 13, 2010, Obama proposed an overhaul of NCLB, promising further incentives to states if they develop improved assessments tied more closely to state standards, and emphasizing other indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate in addition to test scores.

  2. Race to the Top is equally bad as it really defines "winners" and "losers" rather than fixing the problem which is the narrative and sustainability.

  3. My thoughts exactly.
    Also - how can you tie state standards scores to these other learning climate.