I can’t seem to shake the recent conversations I had with some kids. I have been reflecting on the incredible insights and perspectives that groups of middle school students shared with me recently during some focus groups I conducted. (See my June 10 post, Lean In and Listen.) Their candor regarding the instructional practices they experience has haunted me. They were pleading for change, and their pleas cause me to reflect on the very questions I posed in that post to classroom practitioners and education advocates.
- What are they telling us with comments like these?
- Are any of their concerns reflected in my instructional practices?
- What questions should we be asking to better understand where they are coming from?
- What actions should we take as the appropriate next step now that we are aware of how our students are feeling?
A byproduct of my reflection has been the re-visit of a fascinating book by Peter Sacks. It’s titled Standardized Minds - The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It. As the title suggests, Sacks is not a fan of standardized testing. That said, he thoughtfully outlines the history that the role high stakes testing has played in our country’s quest to find a formulaic method to assure that our educational systems are effective and are held accountable for the results those paying for them (taxpayers) expect.
In this book, Sacks examines the sorted applications that standardized tests have played as predictors of academic and vocational potential for success. Of note is his thorough exposure of the harmful effects that the over-use of these flawed assessment instruments has caused to individuals ,as well as the very systems, that they were intended to support. In a nutshell, Sacks offers a resounding argument that our national obsession with standardized, multiple choice (“multiple guess”) tests are simultaneously inaccurate, biased against certain groups of people and do not provide the evidence of accountability they promise. Do they satisfy the curious demands of our national system of meritocracy, the deliberate selection of people based on some evidence of their ability? We’ll explore this question next week. But for now, I want to keep this complicated argument about standardized testing squarely on the ground; focused on classrooms and the real effects they have on kids and on learning.
Anyone who has been following my education advocacy efforts knows that I am convinced that the questions of student engagement with their learning, and the degree to which they find the experience personally relevant, represent a missing link in our current system of public education. Sacks weighs in on this notion: “Test-heavy environments reinforce a certain disinterest among growing numbers of students in almost all things academic.” He goes on to suggest “too many kids hate school for all the reasons anybody would hate institutions that tend to be boring, unengaging, regimented, and run by adults saturated with the fear engendered by accountability politics. The adult’s test-driven classrooms exacerbate boredom, fear, and lethargy, promoting all manner of mechanical behaviors on the part of teachers, students, and schools, and bleed schoolchildren of their natural love of learning” (Gulp.)
Now let’s lay Sacks’ indictment next to those student pleas that not only haunt me, but affirm my ongoing arguments for a child-centered, relevant instructional experience that students find engaging. Kids told me, as recently as two weeks ago, that they needed to be taught in more engaging and interesting ways, that they didn’t always feel that they were being suitably challenged, and that their education experience frequently included instructional models that they found “boring.” (This was their word to describe their experience, not mine.)
The anecdote that Peter Sacks advocates, along with scores of leading educational reformers, is a deliberate shift away from an obsession with standardized testing toward what are commonly termed “authentic” or “performance-based” assessments. He writes: “By putting context above abstractness, understanding over recollection, process over bottom line, and performing over filling in Number 2 pencil bubbles, teachers that have used these new [alternate] assessments have demonstrated an uncanny ability to engage students in learning, to instill a love of learning and a continuing desire to learn. For all its other merits, performance assessment may be the missing link to solving the engagement problem.”
I’m intentionally leaving the performance assessment discussion here, for now, with Sacks’ observations. We will engage in this discussion down the road. But, for now I want my readers to simply ruminate on his perspective in a deliberate comparison to the pleas of kids.
If you haven’t wondered about the title of this post by now, allow me to unveil it. Sacks’ book, Standardized Minds, was published in 1999. Twenty years ago! And now, two decades later, we continue to embrace systems that do not serve the instructional needs of our students, with only spotty applications of what educational experts and assessment gurus know to be the correct path. My question is . . . how much longer to kids need to wait?