All or nothing, good vs. evil, black or white thinking is rarely useful or accurate. No surprise when that’s true of testing. While of testing I might say, in the immortal words of Marianne Moore, that I, too, dislike it, I don’t dislike all of it all of the time. Some testing is necessary. We don’t any of us want a surgeon or even an auto mechanic whose knowledge hasn’t been reviewed and certified. The question is how can we test better?
More to the point, we need some ways (plural) of measuring what kids are learning. But testing has to be approached with intentionality, with a view to its purpose, and with an understanding of what makes it effective:
We need to change the way we think about testing. It shouldn’t be a white-knuckle finale to a semester’s work, but the means by which students progress from the start of a semester to its finish, locking in learning along the way and redirecting their effort to areas of weakness where more work is needed to achieve proficiency.
Standardized testing is in some respects a quest for more rigor in public education. We can achieve rigor in a different way. We can instruct teachers on the use of low-stakes quizzing in class. We can teach students the benefits of retrieval practice and how to use it in their studying outside class. These steps cost little and cultivate habits of successful learning that will serve students throughout their lives.
This approach is interesting. So what if we returned to the way we used to administer standardized tests, before NCLB, when most states tested at three grade levels, usually something like 3, 7, and 10? Some states also included some kind of graduation requirement test, others didn’t.
And then what if teaching credential programs included required classes on assessment? That’s a crucial component. How to make sure that these informal classroom assessments achieve the intended purposes? How to ensure that the assessments are constructed according to best practices? How to make sure that there is no subjectivity (or as little as possible) in the scoring? And how to make sure that the quizzes remained low-stakes? I’ve seen the damage that too many quizzes can do when they’re tied to grades; the stress for students is far greater than what they experience for high-stakes exams, because they experience the consequences directly in their grades and because the stress may occur daily or weekly, depending on the frequency of the quizzes. Then again, if these informal assessments are truly low-stakes, will students be motivated to work at retrieving knowledge, or will they do what so many kids regrettably do at home, that is, when they are looking for the scissors or the tape, they glance about them and, failing to see the scissors or tape in plain view, give up?
UPDATE: The consequences to not testing better are so great, as illustrated in “Wrong Answer,” the story of the Atlanta schools cheating scandal. It’s tempting and easy to blame the teachers, the principals, the school superintendents, but the problem is much bigger and more complicated and can’t be reduced to one of morality or the wrongdoing of individuals.
Poetry by Marianne Moore I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must, these things are important not because a high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible, the same thing may be said for all of us, that we do not admire what we cannot understand: the bat holding on upside down or in quest of something to eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base- ball fan, the statistician-- nor is it valid to discriminate against “business documents and school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, nor till the poets among us can be “literalists of the imagination”--above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them," shall we have it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, the raw material of poetry in all its rawness and that which is on the other hand genuine, you are interested in poetry.