Thursday, March 20, 2008

This is only a test...

People love to pay good money for first-rate advice and then ignore it.

Back in my manufacturing days working as a quality engineer I had the opportunity to see a lot of consultants come and go. One gave me the line paraphrased above. Well, the more things change – the more they stay the same. I may no longer be problem solving in a machine shop, but the idea of shelling out cash for advice that will be disregarded seems to be just as prevalent in the education bizness. Now I’m not saying there is any malicious intent from the boots on the ground per se. Chances are I am critiquing a dance that is only being performed because one’s feet are being shot at but there are trends I am noticing.

I teach writing and public speaking to people from third grade up and through adult. The last couple years I have been hearing variations on a refrain in schools literally around the world – Students ask, "Is there going to be a – or will this be on the test?" Or a teacher might say, "Pay attention this will help you on the test." THE TEST - the ubiquitous inexorable reckoning looming on the horizon like some innumerably armed Hindu demigod clutching number two pencils and pink trapezoidal erasers instead of swords of retribution charging forward – the cloud of dust behind blotting out the sun. THE TEST!!!

Pick an acronym: SAT, PSAT, ACT, OGT, SOL, AP, IB, OAT, MEEP, FCAT, MCAT or any other alphabet soup variation moniker of a high stakes test and there is one attribute that is agreed upon concerning these examinations by high paid expert consultants over and over again- HIGH STAKES TESTING DOES NOT MEASURE FUTURE SUCCESS. How many bios of people prosperous include the line "I wasn’t the best student…?" Of course, many adept test takers are successful in life – that is not the point. The point is correlating and pinning future happiness to these tests – and subsequently making the CEOs of these testing companies, the folks who leach a living off of "preparing" students for the examination with pre-packaged programs or $1,500.00 an hour tutoring (this service does exist and has a waiting list) incredibly wealthy – is pretty much an exercise on the treadmill of futility.

I recently had the opportunity to hear two dynamic keynote speakers at a conference, Dr. Ned Hallowell – an Oprah blessed and Harvard lettered child psychologist and Debbie Silver, former Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and education professor. Both said virtually the same thing: give all the tests you want – just don’t expect the results to mean anything. In fact – the stress given to and created by these rituals may be doing more harm than good. In each audience I saw teachers and administrators nod in agreement and applaud each speaker, and I know these folks went back to their schools and prepared for the administration of the very tests that these highly qualified and compensated consultants told them to avoid like the bubonic infested fleas.

Why are they doing this? Most to keep their jobs I would imagine. There may be a few out there who believe these examinations are real measures of intelligence and ability (usually folks who did well on such tests themselves) but so much of our behavior is conditioned at the basest Skinnerized level of reward and punishment. Teachers and schools who produce high test scores are remunerated with money, either tax dollars or tuition and, possibly more importantly, the parents (when they are engaged) like tests – as long as the scores look good they will not punish the administration or staff at the next PTA meeting. Check out the book Freaknomics for the correlation between Sumo wrestlers and teachers.

When I am asked if what I am teaching will help on the test I always answer yes because what I instruct is a means to more confident communication, so yeah, it’ll help with THE TEST and all the lessons are applicable to multiple standards but it will also aid, more significantly, after the test when the amalgamation of acronyms have fluttered away leaving one standing face to face with another human being.

Listen folks, since I left school I have never been presented with a life decision that came with a pastel pink inked card full of multiple ovals marked A, B, C, D, or E all of the above. I know it is impossible to take testing out of schools and replace it with interpretive dance or juggling but we can look at it with a critical eye. Shouldn’t tests measure improvement, be just one tool used in preparing future adults for life amongst humans instead of this absolute terminus that we fool our kids into believing? We act as if there is no existence after THE TEST when in actuality most have at least 75% of their life to still live.

I have been picked up at the airport by teachers who identify their school by the exit test administered – I’d much rather prefer to hear how their graduates are affecting our world. Perhaps they are researchers, engineers working on desalination in the desert, philosophers, artists, writers, mothers, fathers, factory workers or maybe some of them are highly motivated, highly educated, and highly compensated consultants beating the drums trying to make a difference – hopefully all of them are happy and consider themselves a success.

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