Silly Adults, Assessment is for Kids!

Sometimes, we just want to know, objectively, how things are – their current state of being, general direction, gist, and so on. My kid won’t mix red and tan foods. Every time Junior misses a basket, he screams an obscenity. Can Suzy divide fractions? Stuff is complex. Confusing.

What makes everything clearer is a number; ideally, a number associated with a ranking against peers. A score. A percentile. Normed. Benchmarked. Clear.

And so, there are numerous providers willing to sell us objective measurement and ranking for a fee (and an investment of time). Often, these assessments come bundled with instructional materials to address trouble spots highlighted by the assessment (for an additional fee).

These tests will tell us something, and it is easy to imagine that that something is an objective truth. What is instead true is that the testing industry (and its “personalized” online instruction twin sister) provides nothing of real-time value to teachers that they can’t learn themselves from examining evidence of student learning with colleagues. Add-on tests from outside the learning context dilute instructional program coherence. Which is bad.

So, why do it? Oh, right. We want to know something. We need feedback on learning. We want accountability. And we, for sure, are the adults. 

But assessment is not FOR adults. If assessment is for any adults, it is for the adults doing the instructing, planning, and assessment. Few of those adults are asking for more standardized testing.

So, which adults? Probably politicians, parents, and administrators, in that order.

In a recent (and otherwise blase & forgettable) article in IB World magazine entitled “Big Data, Big Problems?”, Bettina Berendt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Leuven argued that “a normalization of surveillance” is going on “that will ultimately weaken democratic learning and consciousness.” Data of the sort produced by these spurious tests serve economic interests first (of the companies themselves, to start), as Berendt points out, and this reality is frightening both for its implications for society and its effect on kids and teachers.

Berendt argues that big data and algorithms “cause labelling which can negatively effect development,” which is spot-on. Why? “They create an atmosphere where students and teachers feel under surveillance, where they feel under pressure to perform all the time. Traditionally, learning environments have a protected and safe nature. This absence of fear and competitive pressure, at least in phases, is really crucial for learning.”


Assessment for adults creates a false sense of security, of managing learning and the learning environment, or perhaps comfort in the selection of a school that works. Instead, especially when wed to an ecosystem of online gradebooks and invasive “learning management systems” that report to parents on a daily (or immediate) basis like Google Classroom, schools erect a surveillance system that produces social pressure and stress that runs counter to the mindset and culture demanded for optimal learning.

Then the educators probably tweet something pithy about the value of failure. Guilty as charged right here.

Assessment for kids provides feedback on learning – holistically or against specific benchmarks – and prioritizes growth. Assessment for adults seeks to control somebody. Educator should reject totalitarian education, no matter how well intended it seems.

As schools seek answers in the complex world, adopting easy tools that fill a need to know, or to appear good, or to measure what is knowable through far more valid means, we should, to paraphrase Albert Schweitzer, spare a moment’s thought for the suffering of children which we spare ourselves the sight in the process.


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?

On “Modern Status”

Living in a time when 20% of all American children live in poverty, David Brooks is on a search for Jane Austen’s America. Seriously. Brooks has his eyes on the ball in “Modern Status” when he notes that there is little difference between the mannerisms and noticeable intelligence of students from Arizona State versus Harvard, but he loses any sense of critical analysis when he notes that “employers aren’t looking for genius as much as energy and clubbability” without a hint of irony. Certainly, the club that Harvard students are game to join is that which “attribute(s) superior intellectual, moral and cultural qualities to people who can get into those places.”


Brooks goes on to observe that “The message, which one does detect on elite campuses, is that the actual academic content to be found in these places is secondary.” I looked around, but can’t find any numbers indicating how many freshmen admitted to Harvard went to test-drilling charter schools or failing schools where all arts, music, and extra curricular activities have been restricted or cut completely, but I bet 100% of those students haven’t spent much time on their sculling stroke. The message is academics first! and they don’t even cover academics. They cover testing, because if they don’t, teachers get fired. The problem, however, goes beyond vilified teachers and students who may not fit in easily to Harvard’s secret clubs.

This argument by Brooks is exactly why money has to be invested in all public schools, and why non “core” classes must be restored with vigor and respect: the culture that these kids lose when they spend all day on math multiple choice strategies goes beyond the critical thinking, beyond even the culture of not hating boring, awful school lessons, and right to class culture. Elites value those who know how to learn and how to live. Those who know pay attention to life beyond the walls of the school, and for the most vulnerable students, that world must be brought into the schools or they’ll miss it. Underpinning Brooks’s argument is a sad reality: modern status is the status quo, reinforced, and girded by taxpayer dollars flowing into banks and out of schools.