Blogging and Colby and Testing
I have been fighting server wars and trying to get two pieces done on deadline so I've not been blogging or reading many blogs. The pleasure of return was enhanced by a visit to Colby Cosh's
blog. Along with being all over the failure of the Conservatives and the Alliance to merge - for cultural reasons which I hope Colby elaborates on - he has weighed in on the side of testing in schools by way of reaction to Phillip Pullman's Guardian article
Pullman does not much like testing,
My second point concerns the brutal, unceasing emphasis on testing and marking. It leads to a superficial way of working and a very limited way of responding to it. I recently judged a short story competition run by a charity, and what dismayed me about the entries was they were all superficially bright and competent, correctly spelled and punctuated, and all absolutely lifeless.
Nor do I.
I loved tests in school. Loved them because I knew I could do well and loved them because they were a welcome break from thinking. Judging from my 13 year old's schooling, tests now take up more time and require even less thinking. (Of course, the poor kid just got 50% on a social studies project in Grade Eight because he still is a rather inexpert colourer.) I liked tests in university even more because they showcased a certain sort of ability which I am blessed with - I can write eight hundred to twelve hundred words on almost anything with next to no effort and an hour's prep. Compared to even the shortest out of class essay, an exam, a mid-term, was a snap. One which allowed me to demonstrate a grasp of the material and to toss in an out of the way fact or two which ensured a really solid first.
Which, of course, is a complete waste of time. Whether you are in grade one or graduate school what tests measure is the ability to take tests. And what that measures is the willingness of one's teachers to teach to the tests.
We have now arrived at a moment where teaching facts, the mainstay of testing, is rendered redundant by Google. Certainly until you get to upper level university there is no reason why you need to actually "know" anything. You can and should look it up on the net. What education should be about is acquiring skills. The problem is that testing skills is a barren activity. You can teach skills and you can practice them; but testing reading or writing or arithmetical skills implies that there is some sort of objective standard to be met.
Being able to read - something my almost three year old seems quite willing to teach himself using street signs - is just that. You can decipher words on a page. If there is a word you don't know you have to be able to either look to its root to tease out meaning or reach for your dictionary. What reading testing tends to measure is how fast
you can read. Which is not a very interesting indicator of reading ability.
While it is certainly true that a lawyer or a doctor, or even a humble book reviewer, needs to be able to read quickly, most of the rest of the world has little need for speed. So why test it? the answer is that without the element of time, virtually every child can read at "grade level" so everyone would pass and that would stymie the testing paradigm. Testing means dividing kids up into groups of achievers and non-achievers. When everyone passes the critical sorting process can't happen and that would be, to quote Pooh, A Bad Thing.
With writing the same time issue arises and is compounded by the fact there are very few people who can write clean copy at one go. With practice, a lot of practice, it is a skill which can be developed; but to expect, or even ask a kid to turn out literate English on the clock in a single draft demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the craft of writing. Of course the poor kids are going to produce cookie cutter material - if they are lucky.
Real writers - from lawyers to carpet layers - take several runs at a complete draft. Quirky exceptions - and I suspect Colby is one - may get away with a draft and a polish; but most of us have to revise. Any timed test of writing skills measures a facile skill which would leave most professional writers at the bottom of the class.
Ah, but what about math. Surely that is objective enough to be accurately tested. Here again we run into the problem of time. Given enough time most of us can puzzle our way through most elementary math problems. Especially if we are allowed to look at a text book. And, for most of the math problems life sets us, we have more than sufficient time. What we have to be able to do, and this is not really a testable skill, is recognize a math problem when we see it and reach for an appropriate mathematical tool to attack the problem. A process which takes much more time than the world of testing allows.
Little kids are learning machines. They gobble information and skills and experience. I find my younger son Sam picking up the dog French I occasionally speak just for the fun of saying "Hello, how are you?" a different way. At two a teachable moment arrives every five minutes. But there are no testable moments. The lightness of learning at this age is all about enjoying the discovery of what all that brain stuff can do.
Somehow, by the time a child is eight or nine, learning becomes a chore. Part of that is the incredibly inefficient use of time in elementary school, but part of it is that children are told they have to download what they know on pieces of paper to get marks. It is an alien and utterly unnecessary concept driven soley by our society's long term, unspoken need to ration educational resources.
The need to ration is now coming to an end. One of the most basic changes wrought by the internet is that distance education is not only possible it is desirable. And, there is no longer any shortage of class space. The best professors in the world can lecture on the net and be seen by as many people who want to sign up for the course. (Yes, if you want credit you'd have to pay a fee for the marking and exams and all the rest; but that is a hangover from the credentialing mania of the 90's.) A video camera and a wifi connection and the prof is on line, live, right now. (Which will lead to all sorts of fun intellectual property problems.)
We no longer have to ration so why are we testing? Because, culturally, we are still operating on the social/educational sorting model which insists that we find a way of making Johnny "smarter" than "Billy". It is a delusion and a waste of both Johnny's obvious talent and Billy's hidden capacity. It will stop soon.