Friday, April 25, 2014

Important Tests: Part of Quest or Cause to Obsess?

If I asked you which of two students, a college senior or a third grader, was more obsessed about an important test that loomed on their educational horizon, what would you guess?

I listened in on two conversations recently: One was eavesdropping and the other was watching a colleague work with some third graders. On my flight into Pittsburgh, I overheard a college senior tell his seat mate that he was flying home to take the MCAT exam. He thought it would be a good idea to get a solid night's sleep in his own bed, be around the support of his family, and have a home cooked meal. The test was obviously important to him. He did not seem overly stressed, just wanting to do his best for this important step on his quest to go to medical school. His attitude seemed entirely appropriate and right-sized.

The next day a colleague was talking with a group of third graders about their experiences of school in a district in Ohio. She was asking general questions about why it was important to do well in school, why paying attention was important, and why they thought teachers wanted them to be successful. These third graders kept coming back with the same answer no matter what the question: "To do well on the OAA."  "To pass the OAA." "The OAA." "OAA." In a word they were obsessed. Third graders. Our own Q-Team in the building had made a dozen "We Will Rock the OAA" type posters and were planning and OAA pep-rally. Does this seem appropriate or right-sized to you?

I wanted to hear that it's important to do well in school so that you can become a doctor or a lawyer or a baker or a candlestick maker or whatever you want to be. That paying attention was important because you can't learn if you don't pay attention. I wanted to hear that their teachers want them to be successful because they know their teachers care about them. After 30 years in education am I that naive?

How did we get to a place where a roomful of 8 year olds think the entire purpose of school is to do well on a state standardized test? How did we make that the goal of education? Aren't tests, as the student on the plane seemed to know, a means to the end of a young person's aspiration? Isn't there a way to have students take the test seriously without obsessing? What have we done to make elementary students think the test itself is the end, the purpose, the telos of the third grade?

Sadly, I am not naive and I know the answer to this. We have made students think the test is the goal of education because we have made teachers think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making schools think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making districts think it is the goal of education; and we have done that by making the stakes-based-on-test-scores so high for schools and districts. At the highest levels of our state and federal education accountability systems those tests, given on one day, the primary measure of how a school will be judged as successful or not.  Even though those tests do almost nothing to measure curiosity, creativity, collaboration, technical proficiency, or interpersonal skills--some of the very qualities it actually takes to be a successful person in the modern world. Nor do they measure the Self-Worth, Engagement, or Purpose than we know leads appropriately to the the academic motivation that sees tests as a means to an end.  Prior to the test, teachers spend a lot of time and energy talking about the importance of the test. After the test, schools play games and go on field trips and watch movies.

We have done this.  And we can change it.

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