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Jay Currie

One Damn Thing After Another

5/02/2004

Testing, Testing

Over at Shotgun the valuable Kevin Steel takes a run at the Canadian Teachers Federation. He objects to their objections to standardized testing.

Standardized testing is one of the items on the rights agenda which has never made much sense to me. As a child I liked any test which let me tick off a, b, c, or d instead of actually having to do any work. It was great fun and a chance to eliminate wrong answers in search of the right one. But it was a break in the school routine rather than the norm. Moreover, the idea that any of my teachers would "teach to the test" was absurd. Why would they? The tests didn't actually count.

Unfortunately, the general decline in education, the causes of which are many and varied, has lead politicians and their constituancies to demand accountability in the class room and to measure classroom effectiveness with standardized tests. the logic being that education is somehow a product and that tests will act as a measure of quality control.

Much is made of the fact that the tests can be statistically manipulated to normalize for issues like ESL, poverty and family education. The Fraser Institute in its school report cards does an excellent job of flattening the playing field.

The trouble is that the tests are measuring one dimension of a muliti dimensional phenomena known as learning. If, for example, the tests were only used to determine if children had reached a minimal competence this might be useful; but where the idea is to measure the full spectrum of achievement then standardized tests will tend to overwhelm the other, less cut and dried, aspects of learning.

Even more troubling, standardiized tests tend to freeze the teaching of a cirriculum on the day that the test is imposed. A school cirriculum exists and whould be understood to exist, in flux. It should adjust to the culture in which it is embedded.

For example: I commented at Shotgun that Harry Potter has done more to improve reading skills than any standardized test ever will. It has done so because it has driven young boys to read 700 page books because they want to. This is unheard of. And once those boys have started reading they will keep reading.

Smart teachers and schools rushed to incorporate all things Harry into their cirriculum. This was one long teachable moment for an entire generation of school children. But, if the district was driven by a testing agenda, Harry would have to be put aside so that the "product" could be trained up to the tests.

This is bootless.

Of course, the good news is that the fetish for testing will fade as schools themselves become increasingly less involved in how children are, in fact, learning. But that is another post.