Education Reform Testing

John Thompson Reviews Anya Kamenetz, “The Test”

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John Thompson, teacher and historian, admires Anya Kamenetz’s “The Test,” with some qualifications.

He writes:

“Anya Kamenetz’s The Test comes from the conversation she’s had again and again with parents. She and they have “seen how high-stakes standardized tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness.” Like so many Gen X and Gen Y parents, Kamenetz sees how “the test obsession is making public schools … into unhappy places.”

“Kamenetz covers ten arguments against testing, starting with “We’re testing the wrong things,” and ending with “The next generation of tests will make things even worse.” I’d say the second most destructive of the reasons is #4 “They are making teachers hate teaching.” The most awful is #3 “They are making students hate school and turning parents into preppers.”

“The second half of Kamenetz’s great work starts with the Opt Out movement, the grassroots parent revolt. She recalls the disgusting practices that drive families to opt out. Under-the-gun schools have resorted to “petty intimidation” of eight-year-olds, even forcing a nine-year opt-outer old to watch test takers rewarded with ice cream and candy, and requiring student opt-outers to sit and stare without books or diversions for hours while classmates take tests.”

“Kamenetz then presents alternative approaches to high-stakes testing. She explores four different types of assessments that could replace standardized testing. In doing so, she reminds us that “…education’s purpose in the twenty-first century is to prepare students to excel at the very tasks that computers can’t master …”

“As much as I enjoyed the tour Kamenetz takes us on, describing digital tools to quantify and improve teaching and learning, we should not be surprised that 21st century technology has created such promising, and potentially dangerous, technologies. Even if a magic wand existed and it enabled a ban on all these measures from public schools, would anyone doubt that those tools would be used and abused by affluent families? Rightly or wrongly, in or outside of classrooms, there will be elites who use data-driven techniques to build better Ivy League scholars, to produce faster and leaner child athletes, and more determined ballet dancers. Moreover, those who can afford it will continue to make low tech investments, ranging from field trips, family vacations, and portfolio assessments, that expand their children’s worldviews.

“Is there any doubt that the new metrics will result in modern versions of John Stuart Mill, who are raised to be geniuses and to bring the next generation of utilitarianism to an unprecedented level? Isn’t it also inevitable that some parents will follow in the footsteps of Mill’s father, and lead their children to nervous breakdowns?….

“Corporate reformers have no right to impose these assessments or, for that matter, primitive high-stakes multiple choice regimes on public schools. Neither is there a place in public education for grading students’ character or their states of mind.

“Kamenetz clearly understands the potential downsides of emerging assessments, as well as their dangers in the hands of reformers who believe that they should be empowered to micromanage testing and the learning that it guides. For instance, she writes, “Most troubling to me is the ways in which measuring and holding schools accountable for the social and emotional health of their students, if done in wrong ways, might, once again, worsen the effects of inequality.”

“She also compares the data accumulated through new testing methods to putting computer chips in the ears of migrating antelope. Moreover, “student data, like health data, is extremely sensitive.” The idea that it could be used for marketing, hiring, tracking, stigmatizing children is “creepy.”

“So, while I respect Kamenetz’s effort to frame solutions in a constructive manner, I believe that the focus must be on the way that “standardized testing leads to standardized teaching.” We must concentrate on the way that output-driven accountability means that “whatever subject the kids hate most … takes over all of school.” We should not give defenders of bubble-in accountability (or those who are tempted to collaborate with it) an easy out. We must focus on Kamenetz’s wise metaphor, “Pervasive assessment is a nightmare version of school for most students. It’s like burning thirsty plants in a garden under a magnifying glass, in the hope they will grow faster under scrutiny.”

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