Should we test them? or not test them? (Hint: Those are the wrong questions…)

This time of year in Michigan, standardized testing is on everyone’s mind. This year is a little more frantic than others, I’m afraid. Michigan’s Department of Education is piloting the online version of a new state test. In my role, I’ve spent a lot of time contributing to support all over the state trying to help concerned educators prepare themselves and their students for this transition.

Besides that, every Michigan HS Junior is given a chance to take a college entrance exam. Since the inception of this practice, this exam had always been the ACT. Then, just after the new year, news broke (somewhat out of nowhere) that Michigan was going to switch to giving the SAT.

Now, each of these tests has a whole machine surrounding it. There are practice tests, prep sessions, special activities put in place to prepare for both the look and feel of the testing items as well as for the content. In many ways, “teaching-to-the-test” has become a foregone conclusion. This is especially true in districts who are working very, very hard to improve the test scores for evaluative or punitive reasons. (More on this later.)

All of this fervor can really make a guy wonder whether or not this testing is worth all the hassle. Are we doing good things to education by instituting all of this testing? Are frequent assessments the right way to go?

And I think those are the wrong questions.

Consider a person who is hyper-interested in his or her weight. Like dangerously so. This person steps on the scale several times a day. And makes aggressive changes for the sake of gaining or losing 10 or 20 lbs very, very quickly. On what can we blame this problem?

Lots of things, I suspect. This person may have a background with some experiences that need to be reconciled. This person may have anxiety issues that need to be resolved. This person may be in a personal or professional relationship that puts unrealistic pressure on his or her appearance. This person may spend too much time focusing on and associating with other people who have similar habits. There is a culture that he or she has become a part of that feeds into this point-of-view.

The scale that he or she steps isn’t the problem (provided the scale is accurate). The scale is the tool that provides the information. The information is then getting abuse by the recipient. The solution to this problem is NOT to dispose of the scale. The abusive recipient is still going to seek for information and they will find it in perceived tightness of clothes, or calories consumed or duration of a workout.

What we need to adjust is the response to the information.

Right now, we are asking our schools to step on the scale too frequently, and making too much of the number we get.

Look, changes in policy and curricula often show effects slowly. And we should look for slow, sustained improvement. This is evidence of a cultural change that is becoming a new standard. Just like the dieter who is looking to lose 50 pounds. A two-year journey losing a three or four pounds per month doesn’t make for an exciting, story. It doens’t get you on NBC Shows, but it’s healthy. It’s sustainable. It is evidence that a real change has taken place.

It is with this in mind that I will assert that the tests aren’t the problem with our educational testing culture. While I suspect that we are testing too much. If the person from the analogy has a scale in every room, then it might be useful to reduce that number to one, but it would be wrong to blame the tests. They are giving us information. And we in the educational community aren’t handling the influx of information very well.

So, I have some thoughts about this.

What if we only formally and decisively tested students every other year? When it comes to state tests that determine school ratings, funding, oversight, and evaluation, how about we get on an every other year plan. We aren’t looking for quick-hitting solutions. We are looking for culture changes. The most effective instructional and curricular changes take time to go from implementation to fruitful improvement anyway. So, if the 2013 testing cycle revealed content weaknesses in a certain area, then you have 24 months to implement an update to your system that will improve it. Then in 2015, we’ll see how it’s going.

Taking a standardized test well is NOT a meaningful life skill with which to send students away from school. I’ve heard this one from a variety of different angles. The “they’ll-need-it-to-get-through-college” argument, to the “managing-test-anxiety” argument, to the “we-need-our-scores-to-jump-30-percentage-points-in-3-months” argument. This has been the most troubling development I’ve seen. This goes beyond “teaching-to-the-test”. This is downright teaching test-taking strategies as though the skill of taking a test has any application. It doesn’t. Students need to take tests well because we choose to test them. When we change our focus, we change this skill set. It is completely dependent on our choice. EVERY SINGLE other skill we want students to leave school with are determined by appealing to some outside need. Critical thinking, basic math skills, reading, obedience, playing well with others, healthy eating, tolerance for diversity, etc. These are things that you can EASILY give reasons for students leaving school with these skills in their hip pockets. So, why are we spending one second teaching standardized teaching strategies?

I’ve never seen a school or educational department include students (or even suggest it) in the process of collecting or analyzing the formal and decisive testing data. Why not? When it is becoming more and more evident that there are huge gains to be made by putting students in a position to self-monitor and to train them to be competent in doing so, why are we allowing this opportunity to pass us by. (I don’t think our decision-makers trust young people as much as you and I do.) Perhaps while we are training them to be effective self-monitors, we see minutes that they could be spending practice math problems ticking away. It’s too bad that we have begun to operate on such a short-sighted view of efficiency.

Look folks, I’m not any more excited about this hyper-evaluative testing culture than anyone else, but I think that we need to take a step back from our repulsion and really look at what the problem is so that we can really solve it.