On High Stakes Testing

I just read a fascinating blog post from Will Richardson entitled “The Parent Factor.” In it, Richardson discusses his experience with the superintendent of a New York school district’s meeting with 15 parents about changing their curriculum “from a traditional classroom to a more student centered, authentic, inquiry based classroom” and the possible impact on test scores. Richardson notes that high stakes tests are frustrating both parents and children, but that “test scores are seen as a hugely important factor in maintaining property values and in tracking student achievement.” I highly suggest giving his entire piece a read.

What struck me the most reading this was how truly crazy the entire situation behind this meeting is. The tests don’t actually track student achievement in a meaningful way. The superintendent knows that, Richardson knows that, and the parents suspect that, but the stakes are so high for communities, from housing values to teacher employment to maintaining school funding, that they are forced to maneuver in convoluted ways to avoid the brutal punishment of NCLB censure: In Need of Improvement, Restructuring, and so on. A metaphor flashed repeatedly before me: It’s like a village knows more or less how to meet all of its own needs, but there is a moody and capricious dragon in their midst that must be consistently appeased through repetitive, time-consuming, mind-numbing ritual. Time is taken away from sowing fields, from teaching children, from playing games, from commerce, from conversation. Appeasement, managing the basics always to avoid the dragon’s scorch, overrides all other concerns.

I strive to make my views of high-stakes testing clear. My views of these tests became clear the day I saw a Navajo student in Tohatchi, New Mexico, try to answer this question on a state test:

Where are you most likely to see a motorboat?

  1. In the sky
  2. On a lake
  3. On the highway
  4. In a volcano (or something silly)
  5. Again, a silly option

Now most students will recognize what answer the question wants, but this question is not the right answer in Tohatchi. A child in Tohatchi is far, far more likely to see a motorboat go by on the highway en route from Denver to Lake Powell than anywhere else. This test question could never judge achievement; it judges cultural capital. How can the good people of Tohatchi appease this dragon in an ethical manner? Why would they want to, if the fate of their schools and their children did not hang in the balance? My heart goes out to educators working to shape authentic, student centered curriculum as the dragon lurks. At long last, when will we free our children from this abject nonsense and work to solve the actual problems at hand, rather than paper over them with bubble sheets?

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