Blame the Test

This is inspired by a New York Times article: Standing Up to Testing

Patents are declining public standardized tests for their kids in what has become known as the “opt-out movement”. While I’m sure their kids are happy to comply, is it really a good for them?

Parents in the opt-out movement claim that the tests cause teachers to “teach to the test”. Why is that a bad thing? What if the material that the tests cover is highly beneficial for kids? If that were the case, then teaching to the test is exactly what you’d want. “teaching to the test” would be a bad thing if there was something wrong with the contents of the test. However, this does not seem to be the parents’ main concern.

Another claim is that tests are “killing creativity, enthusiasm, etc.”. It seems that such claims are based on parents observing that enthusiasm for school declines as their children age. That may well be the case, but a crucial question remains: Why is the test to blame? Kids were losing interest in school long before the rise of tests. I suspect many people have experienced school killing the joy of learning.

Ultimately, pulling your kid from test accomplishes very little. A more constructive thing to do is suggest how testing can be reformed to promote the characteristics that we want. If you think the current test kills creativity, then you should suggest ways of testing that promote creativity. Perhaps it is parents themselves who need to get creative.

If you think that school isn’t fostering your child’s interest in a subject (e.g. the ocean), buy her books about it. Bring her to the aquarium. Better yet, take your next vacation in the Galapagos, the place that inspired Darwin to develop the Theory of Evolution, and take her diving. These are the kind of things that only a parent can provide. There is simply no way to get this kind of individual attention at school, because there is no way to pay for the amount of staff that would be needed. If you thought that shipping your kids off to school during the day, and making sure they do their homework at night is all that they need to learn, you couldn’t be more mistaken.

If your child’s interest in the ocean seems to be declining, it might not be the test (or the kind of pedagogy that results from it). Another explanation is that her previous enthusiasm was never really going to go anywhere. Maybe, it was just excitement over some novelty that was destined to wear off with time. Maybe, it was just a phase.

It seems that the opt-out movement is against any kind of big system-wide test, not just tests in its current form, because I don’t see any suggestions for how tests could be improved.

The job of education administrators is to engineer the system to get the outcomes that we want. A critical element of this is recognizing and promoting the best teachers. In order for this to work, administrators need to give teachers a clear standard by which they will be judged. Otherwise, teachers will not know what is expected of them in order to be promoted. Or worse: promotions will be based on personal favors.

If there were a brain scanner that could tell us whether kids are as smart as we want them to be in the areas that we care about, we wouldn’t need tests. Until the day such a device becomes available, testing seems to be the next best thing. Therefore, unless someone comes up with a better alternative, the question should not be whether to test, but what to test? In what form? How often? I’m sure there’s plenty of areas in which the test can be improved; however, that does not suggest that you throw the baby out with the bath water.

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