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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Testing 1,2,3...

Think back to your school experiences between Kindergarten and high school graduation.

What is your best memory during those years in school?

Is it solely academically related? For example, the day you won the spelling bee after all those hours of studying? Or, is it a socially or emotionally based memory, as in the great big smile your teacher displayed when you won the spelling bee, or the high fives from your classmates after the spelling bee victory?

I strongly suspect that most of readily recall those experiences that involve relationships and interactions, not periodic tables or multiplication tables. That's why I'm concerned about the present and prevailing environment in public schools that are pressed and stressed to prepare children for fill-in-the-bubble tests that bear the weight of stringent assessments under the guise of accountability.

While it may be seem counter-intuitive to the layperson for schools to invest valuable school time in recess and the arts to prepare for high stakes tests in English Language Arts and Math, I think it's counter-productive to devote disproportionately high amounts of time to those two subjects in an effort to produce higher achievement levels on those assessments. The value ascribed to those two subject areas dwarf and diminish the worth of all other subject matter, especially the arts, as well as periods considered non-academic, like recess and lunch. Think of the phrase - "You measure what you treasure." Are we reducing the focus of schools, especially at the elementary level, to all things Math and ELA?

In a related issue, the ongoing fiscal crisis that imperils public schools has caused reductions in programs and personnel. It's not uncommon to read of school districts that have been confronted with decreased revenues and tax levy caps that precipitate required budget cuts in instructional programs. All too often, these cuts are in electives at the high school level, non-mandated programs throughout the school system, and subject matter that is not tested by the state. The Arts and Physical Education are frequent victims of such decision making.

While daydreaming recently, I thought of how interesting it would be if instead of testing the knowledge of learners on the fill-in-the-bubble assessments (how much higher order thinking can we expect in questions reduced to multiple choice questions?) we instead ask the learners to be inventive and take the sheet of bubbles and create something out of it? For instance, we'd probably get some terrific leopards and giraffes from our second graders. Imagine what the seventh graders could come up with.

I once worked in a school district that tested prospective candidates for the gifted and talented program by giving them a sheet of paper that was blank except for a single, fairly small object that appeared in the middle of the paper. They were asked to create something using the object in their composition. It wasn't a question of their artistic talent but rather how creative they were, and how they could extrapolate from that single object and produce something.

Another memory I have about testing took place when I was an elementary principal in Texas serving a school with a large Spanish speaking population. The required state tests were significant challenges to children who spoke English as their second language. In one test, the children in third grade were presented with a paragraph about a little mouse who lived in an area between the walls of a house. The test instructions directed children to imagine they were the mouse and describe what they saw when they looked out of the mouse hole. One child followed the directions and explained in English that his mouse was named Jose and then he proceeded to write everything that followed in Spanish. He was not awarded any credit for his answer because it was in Spanish and it was an English Language Arts exam. Think about that for a moment. He responded appropriately to the directions and was quite creative but it was all for naught. I'm sure that if his work was translated it would be as expressive and descriptive as his English speaking peers. However, the test was not eliciting or examining creative thought but simply grammar, spelling, punctuation....

The acquisition of skills and knowledge are fundamental platforms for future cognitive endeavors and success in disciplines, but significant advances and innovations emerge as much or more from creativity and imagination. Einstein suggested that imagination is more powerful than knowledge - and that's from someone who was a giant intellect!

I am hopeful that the current philosophy on testing and accountability becomes tempered by reason and discounted by reality.



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