Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Testing, Testing. Who Doesn't Love Testing?

April 25, 2012

My daughter is getting ready to start State Testing next week, and she's pretty excited about it. No, seriously--she is. My son is already in the middle of the high school testing, and he enjoys it, too. So did my older daughter, and frankly, I loved it when I was a kid. (It wasn't the current form of the test, but as 'innovative' and 'forward-thinking' as the testing industry likes to think it is, the tests from thirty years 3ago weren't nearly as different as we'd like to think.)

Are we strange people, that we enjoy all this testing that everyone seems to complain about? Well, yes, we are strange, but not because we like testing. (By the way, I do my fair share of complaining about testing as an educator, but it's really more about the sheer volume and time and weight placed on these things than it is an aversion to testing itself.) Anyway, the reality is that my children all love testing because they're good at it--the same reason I loved it. It gives them a tremendous boost of esteem to face a test--in whatever subject--and feel confident that they know how to tackle it. They know how to succeed in this particular assessment. They compete with each other for percentiles and 'rankings', but really, they compete with themselves. They can't wait to see state test results show up in the mail during the summer so they can see if they were able to raise the Language Arts percentile from a 96% to a 98%, or to move the bar on the graph from the middle of "Advanced" up to the upper end of the chart.

Now, lest you think this is only a thinly veiled avenue for me to brag about my kids, let me assure you this is going somewhere. When my daughter and I were talking about her upcoming state test, I said to her, "I'm glad you're excited about the tests, but you know, not all kids are." She acknowledged that, and we talked a little bit about why that might be. There are some kids who are simply apathetic, but I really think most kids start out caring and we drive it out of them. We drive it out of them by placing so much emphasis on the outcomes of these tests, and making them feel like they're failures if they don't place near the top. This happens fairly early on in education, so by the time those struggling kids hit high school (and even junior high), they've moved past trying. It's easier to not try and not have to own up to the responsibility of having 'failed' than it is to continue to try year after year and still come up short--and have to face that. I believe that's what a good many of our kids feel.

I'm not advocating that we stop trying with these kids--far from it. I'm a firm believer in literacy as a means of mobility and action and self-sufficiency in our world. However, we do have to acknowledge that as a society, we tend to place such a high value on traditional education--an educational system that hasn't really changed much to reflect modern society despite never-ending 'reform efforts'-- that many of our students (and many adults, frankly) feel disenfranchised. They feel their skills, their abilities, somehow don't translate into the same worth in this society. It's what can land them on the fringe, on the sidelines. When one's skill set isn't valued, it's difficult to get excited about playing in the game. We need to do a better job of expanding the game, or better yet, widen the net of games we find worthy.

I'm a very strong student--I always have been. There are skills that I learned in being a student that have helped me to become a strong, self-sufficient adult. But if we as a society didn't value traditional academic education they way we do, and instead were a society that placed all emphasis on, say, construction, or mechanics, or physical prowess, I might have had a very different outlook in my adult life. If I spent all day, every day wielding a hammer, or trying to put together engines, or learning the ins and out of the game of basketball, I would eventually develop some rudimentary skill in those areas. I might even manage passable skills. But there is no convincing me that I would, through repetition and daily exposure, eventually be able to build the next Eiffel Tower, or develop the newest additions to field of transportation, or that I would, with enough hard work, become so strong in basketball that I would make the NBA. These are not my aptitudes. Never will be. But just imagine if all of my schooling--my compulsory education--revolved around these fields, and I spent every day of my young life feeling inept and lost next to counterparts in the classroom whose natural abilities in these fields led them to shine. I would imagine that although I might grow, and might even master specific tasks within that field, if I had been told by some test again and again and again that I was "Below Basic," I might eventually believe that that's where I would always be. And if I believed it every time someone told me "I just wasn't trying hard enough," well, I just might stop really trying--because then at least I wouldn't have to face up to the fact that I was trying, and it still just wasn't good enough. And ultimately, I would get the message that what I do have to offer, my skills and aptitudes and abilities, was not worth contributing, because it wouldn't fit into the 'correct' mold. How could I possibly show my worth if the only way to show worth is a test that doesn't test what I CAN do?

This is the message I think a lot of our kids get. We choose one avenue, one kind of skill set. Yes, there are different subjects, and even among those the ability levels vary. But the goal is the same: in this skill set, the taking of a fill-in-the-bubble test regarding English, math, science, and social studies, bring every kid up to proficient. ("Proficient", by the way, is a random and arbitrary designation, which is a whole other discussion. It's a subjective designation designed to make statistics palatable and easy to grasp, but it is still, at the end of the day, far more arbitrary than anybody cares to draw attention to.) Proficient is the finish line, and they must all cross it together. Some kids start early; some kids start well after the race has begun. Some kids are built for sprinting, and some kids are running with crutches. Some kids don't even know the race has started until nearly the end. There are kids who stop along the way to smell the roses on the sidelines. Regardless, everyone must cross the finish line together at the same time. They all have to come in first, or they have failed. Is this really the message we want to give our kids? Sure, it's a good race, and it lets us know which kids can cross the finish line--this particular finish line. But while we're all off cheering on the kids in the sprint down the final stretch, there are kids off on the sidelines, building bridges and painting masterpieces and singing moving arias and writing computer code that's never yet been seen--but they've failed, because they never showed up to the 'right' race.

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