In their book The Myths of Standardized Tests, Phillip Harris, Bruce Smith and Joan Harris tell this story:
“What are you doing?” a helpful passerby asks.
“Looking for my car keys,” answers the drunk.
“Did you drop them somewhere around here?”
“I don’t think so,” replies the drunk.
“Then why look here? the puzzled would-be helper wonders.
“It’s the only place where there’s any light.”
What we find is largely dependent on where we look. The more we tighten our focus on highly prescribed curriculums that are enforced by test and punish standardized exams the more we miss. Ironically, an intense focus requires a kind of tunnel vision that blinds us to the wider consequences of our decisions.
Joe Bower, For the Love of Learning
My students are frollicking in the local aquatic center. At their grade we can offer swimming lessons for about two weeks. It is a wonderful experience for them I think. It is a moment of relaxation for me because I can sit pool-side and catch up on my marking. As it turns out, I’m marking the beginning of the year math assessment. It surveys the learning my students hopefully carried over with them from grade three. Yes, September is over and yes, I feel I should have gotten this done earlier. Insert your own favorite excuse at this point to explain that.
I’ve commented on this moment in earlier posts at edustange. Twice in response to other Joe Bower posts here, and here. Another was on standardized testing. In each case, and once again this week, Joe Bower calls forth a critical stance on my practice. It feels so comfortable shuffling the assessment papers, tallying results by catagory (numbers, statistics and probability, shape, and patterns), compiling the quantifiable data into an Excel spread sheet. I’ll use the result to group students for math and target outcomes. You really know where you are going with these tests. Unless of course the test is a convenient, but inadequate measure of acquired learning.
Aye, there’s the rub. Part of it is twenty-five multiple choice questions. Three questions to a page, nine pages just for that; administered to nine-year-olds. Two additional pages for multi-step word problems, and a final page of sixteen computations. How does that impact the results I always ask myself.
Some struggled greatly with division and the multi-step word problems. I helped two by supplying them with manipulatives. It helped them greatly. I realized others in the room would have benifited from that adaptation but I had not anticipated the possibility. For the other twenty-one the assessment was administered in a uniform fashion. It was administered in a (to my mind) small room where distractions were inevitable. I could continue to follow this train of thought for some time longer. People were not getting what they needed to demonstrate their learning. People were accommodating themselves as best they could to the conditions of the test.
Well, practically speaking, it has to be this way. Perhaps; but its hard to maintain confidence in a measure when you know the principal criteria of the test is practicality. It operates efficiently but does it achieve the intended goal. The more I have to mediate the results of assessment with my month’s contact with the students, the less sense the test makes.
I’ll revisit this tension in November when I prepare to meet with the students and their parents. I seem to need to guard myself against an enthusiasm for the pat results.
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