Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows…

The basic idea inhabiting most people’s minds about what goes on in classrooms is usually quite simple: students are taught by teachers, students learn (hopefully), and at some point, students show what they’ve learned. For this last part, we usually imagine a test, pen-on-paper, timed, and, if we’re honest, probably a somewhat arbitrary reflection of the curriculum. And most practicing teachers would, if pressed, probably agree.

The more discerning commentator, though, will point out a few new changes in how students are tested. Testing can be used to help students as often as stress them: by testing, we know what students are learning and what they are not. Also, to achieve change across a large system, testing might be required to gather the necessary data. After all, we need to know where we are as a system before we can decide where we need to go; as well, we need to know if we are getting there. This article by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times does a good job of describing the current anxieties and imperatives around school testing:

Testing of young children had been out of favor for decades among early-childhood educators in the United States, who worry that it stifles creativity and harms self-esteem, and does not accurately reflect the style and irregular pace of children’s learning anyway. (There may be some truth to that. My son, who suffered the flash card assault, was by age 7 the family’s most voracious reader.) Testing young children has been so out of favor that even the test-based No Child Left Behind law doesn’t start testing students’ reading abilities until after third grade — at which point, some educators believe, it is too late to remedy deficiencies.But recently, American education’s “no test” philosophy for young children has been coming under assault, as government programs strongly promote the practice.First there was No Child Left Behind, which took effect in 2003 and required states to give all students standardized tests to measure school progress.Now, President Obama’s Race to the Top educational competition — which announced billions of dollars in state grants this month — includes and encourages more reliance on what educators call “formative tests” or “formative assessments.” These are not the big once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime exams, like the SATs, but a stream of smaller, less monumental tests, designed in theory, at least, primarily to help students and their teachers know how they’re doing.Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.Of course, the tests have to be age-appropriate, Professor Cizek notes, and the Race to the Top program includes funds for research to develop new exams. Filling in three pages of multiple-choice bubbles may not be appropriate for young children. Likewise “high stakes” tests — like the Chinese university entrance exam, which alone determines university placement — create anxiety and may unfairly derail a youngster’s future based on poor performance on a single day.But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

Students don’t generally like tests. Few adults enjoy being evaluated, either. It has become en vogue to suggest that we can all get better at anything we do, and that evaluation is key to that – books like Mindset have sold millions and appear in many a staff lunchroom left behind by superiors hoping to soothe the egos of the increasingly-scrutinized worker.

But, as the author points out, perhaps testing really isn’t a bad thing. She moved her children to Beijing, a place where testing can happen nearly daily, and then back to the US:

When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.

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