It is the test! Or is it . . .

I rarely find myself disagreeing with an idea that Dr. Scott McLeod places on the table, but this one raised my hackles a bit. I have always positioned myself as an avid anti-standardized testing professional. However, when I finished reading his piece I thought I would take a breath, step back, and consider it before responding. The argument played out in my thoughts this way:

“We must take ownership of our own culpability.”

The reaction to this statement was, “As teachers we have very little voice in the profession we work in.” That is the voice of the un-empowered. Where does it come from?

I contend that it occurs because society does not see teachers as practitioners. The power to conceive and architect learning is not often afforded to teachers. They are encouraged to take the pre-packaged materials and be creative, but not allowed to ask themselves and their students the question, “What is worth knowing?”

School is about learning, constrained learning. The constraints placed on the environment come from the idea that there is a single way to quantify learning. Enter the standardized test. It is an analytical tool too often abused and misused. It is not wrong to take regular snapshots of learning, analyze them, and improve practice. The problem arises when these snapshots are given an undo amount of significance in the process of improvement. The testing culture produces a vicious cycle, one that does not leave teachers feeling very secure in stepping out and “practicing their passion.” If teachers are culpable it is not in creating the testing culture, it is in not standing up against it. School should be about learning, unconstrained learning.

“Our prevalent instructional model that emphasizes low-level, de-contextualized, factual recall was dominant long before ‘the tests.’”

Standardized textbooks work nicely for standardized testing. However, they do not do much for the idea that life is a big picture. Integration of content into a whole is hard work. It is far easier to teach a fractured curriculum because the result demanded is a standardized test that seeks the ability to see myopically, one subject at a time. Dr. McLeod is correct. This fractured approach has long been the model for education. The assembly line reality of the industrial age required each worker to do one thing and to do it well. Employee A did not need to know what Employee B did to complete their task five feet further down the line. That worked. Today, standardized testing requires each student to know how to do each thing in exactly the same way in order to produce the same product. The world they live in however, requires them to see the integrated picture. The test does not fit with reality. If teachers are culpable it is not in creating the testing culture, it is in not standing up against the learning environment it requires.

“Have we all forgotten that school has been boring for generations?”

To a teacher, “them’s fightin’ words.”  This may be an issue of semantics, but school is not boring, it is not engaging. A toddler moves around their space looking at things and wondering, albeit in a very rudimentary way, “What is that?” “What does it do?” “What does it feel like?” “What does it look like on the other side?” and much to our chagrin at times, “What does it taste like?” As children grow, we intentionally place things in their hands, often without any instructions at all. They take them and ask a more sophisticated set of questions, “What is it?” “What are its capabilities?” “What do I want to do with it?” “What can I add to it?” Though generated from a more complex perspective, they are not much different from those asked by a toddler. School, currently, is not like this. I go back to the idea of asking the question, “What is worth knowing?” Textbook publishers, politicians, and society arbitrarily answer this question for students – so what results is an environment that is not engaging. It is not engaging because all of the most important questions have already been “answered” for the student. Yes, again, if teachers are culpable it is not in creating the testing culture, it is in not standing up against a societal culture that doesn’t allow the teacher to foster the inborn curiosity ever human is born with.

“It’s not ‘the tests.’ It’s our unwillingness and/or inability to do something different, something better.”

In the end, this is the only comment with which I would take issue. I do not think it is an inability, as evidenced by the work of Dr. McLeod and other like-minded educators. Nor, is it an unwillingness to move the paradigm. It is also not about better . . . but it IS about different. Educators must begin to Rethink education and force the issue.

The testing culture is symptomatic. I would suggest the disease is a failure of the education professional to stand up and “be heard.” I wanted to argue Dr. McLeod’s point and I remain an avid anti-standardized testing professional, but in the end, the conversation in my thoughts led me to the same place. This is not an indictment of the teaching profession. Society bears a good portion of responsibility in not moving to a paradigm where teachers are viewed as “practicing professionals” like doctors, lawyers, nurses, etc. However, we can be in control of the issue, if we step up and make our voices heard.

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6 thoughts on “It is the test! Or is it . . .

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  1. Bravo! We in Australia aren’t yet in the same testing boat as you are, but the conditions are similar; fragmented de-contextualised learning, short-term quantifiable goals.

  2. I have many things to think about after reading this blog…the phrase “unconstrained learning” jumps out at me right from the start. As a reading specialist for K, 1st, and 2nd grade, I am in and out of classrooms on a daily basis, and I see hints of constrained learning as early as kindergarten. I think kindergarten has become much more academic in nature rather than the social learning environment of years’ past. Is this early focus on academics due to “teaching to the test” in later grades? I definitely see the connection! As this post says, “We can be in control of the issue, if we step up and make our voices heard.” I intend to applyfor a kindergarten position in my school at the end of this school year and foster and “unconstrained learning environment.”

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